What People Believe: The Church of Maradona
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The year is 51 AD and, in the English city of Stoke, blasphemy is already rife. The Ten Commandments are disobeyed without hesitation and the hand of God is cursed rather than praised.
This is the world according to the Iglesia Maradoniana, or the Church of Maradona, an organization instigated by fans of the football hero in his native Rosario, Argentina.
The Church was founded in 1998, on El Diego’s 38th birthday, and gives him Christ-like status in counting the years from his birth, meaning the calendar at the time of writing is in 51 AD. Now the ‘religious’ following claims 120,000 members and holds services incorporating a modified version of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments.
To the average reader, this would seem to be the activity of fanatical, somewhat strange individuals. One would never expect to see, for example, a Church of David Beckham, Bobby Charlton or Gary Lineker. However, Maradona is more than a simple footballer to the Argentinian people. He is the symbol of the nation, like Shakespeare, Churchill and Paul Gascoigne mixed into one.
Where Gascoigne’s controversial antics made him something of a joke figure in Britain, Maradona’s brushes with crime (and death), coupled with his achievements and working-class roots, have gained him a cult following in Argentina that encompasses almost the entirety of the population.
The worship of D10S (a play on the Spanish word for God and Maradona’s shirt number) is not a joke. In a Guardian interview in 2008, one of the three founders, Alejandro Veron stated that "This procession is important - it demonstrates how unconditional we are to Diego." This is the key difference with Britain’s devotion to its stars: rightly or wrongly, our footballers are praised and criticized in equal measure, with fans feeling no debt to their players, quickly dismissing them for a bad run of form or a media scandal.
In Argentina, Maradona is genuinely considered a gift from God, perhaps more. A phrase often heard in Argentina is "the Pope is German, but God is Argentinian", demonstrating just how devoted to their talisman they are. His flaws are celebrated alongside his accolades, with the Church’s ‘baptism’ routine including those being inducted recreating the famous ‘hand of God’ goal.
This is where Diego Maradona’s appeal comes from - he is a figure who has achieved superhuman feats whilst still having such obvious imperfections. In a way, he represents a modern, more accessible Christ figure to the people of his country. While there are those who refute Maradona’s talismanic status off the pitch, criticizing the mistakes he has made in a rational manner, the majority of Argentina are still in awe of their greatest talent.
There are suggestions that this is just a phase in history and that the Church will inevitably die out with its idol, especially considering the potential of Lionel Messi to eclipse El Diego’s on-field achievements. Still, it is hard to imagine the cult of Maradona becoming any less prominent in Argentina, with many consciously naming their children Diego in honour of their hero.
Furthermore, this religious worship of D10S is no longer confined to his home nation. There is a Church of Maradona Tartan Army in Scotland and pockets of support elsewhere, not least in Naples, where he brought such success to Napoli in the eighties.
No footballer inspires such devotion and unconditional fandom. Diego Maradona transcends his status as merely the most talented footballer of all time. He provides an example of someone who made countless mistakes and errors of judgement, yet still managed to rise from the streets of Rosario to world champion and international icon. While the obsessive following is extreme, it is in part understandable for a man who is at once a heavily flawed human being and a God.
The Ten Commandments of The Church of Maradona
- The ball must not be stained, as D10S has proclaimed;
- Love football over all things;
- Declare your unconditional love of football;
- Defend the colours of Argentina;
- Preach the words of "Diego Maradona" all over the world;
- Pray in the temples where he preached, and to his sacred mantles;
- Do not proclaim the name of Diego in the name of a single club;
- Follow the teachings of the Maradonian Church;
- Let Diego be your second name, and that of your children;
- "No ser cabeza de termo y que no se te escape la tortuga." (Meaning: "don't be a hothead and don't let the turtle escape you").
Our Diego (Variation on the Lord’s Prayer)
Our Diego, who is on the pitches,
Hallowed be thy left hand, bring us your magic. Make your goals remembered on earth as in heaven,
Give us some magic every day, forgive the English, as we have forgiven the Napolitan Mafia,
Don't let yourself get caught offside and free us from Havelange and Pelé.