Diego Maradona has died. It's not strictly political news, but it overshadows everything else that might be going on in the country.
The connections between football and politics in Argentina are so patently obvious that they just roll off the pen. President Alberto Fernández is a lifelong supporter of Argentinos Juniors, the small Buenos Aires first division side where Maradona first made his way in the game. Former centre-right president Mauricio Macri was for years the chairman of local giants Boca Juniors, the team Maradona loved and joined from Argentinos in 1981. Macri based his political career on turning Boca Juniors into a trophy-winning machine when he was in charge of the club between 1995 and 2007. Maradona played for Boca Juniors with Macri as chairman from 1995 to 1997. In another twist, before his death, Diego was currently managing Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata, the club Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner supports (her late mother, especially, was a keen fan). Maradona, a self-declared Peronist) was on excellent terms with Fernández, meeting him earlier this year. He also managed the national team in 2010, when Fernández de Kirchner was president.
News of the Albiceleste legend’s death prompted around-the-clock coverage on all major media outlets. The president spent Wednesday afternoon reminiscing about Maradona’s early years playing for Argentinos Juniors in a live telephone interview with a pro-government cable television news channel. Fernández again was interviewed on Wednesday night, by an anti-government cable news channel this time, saying that Maradona’s passing was “an enormous loss.” It says a lot about just how much football is part of life in Argentina that the president fielded questions all day Wednesday about how he felt about Maradona’s death as an Argentinos Juniors fan.
At the time of writing, Maradona is lying in state at Casa Rosada (Government House), with mayhem building. Some of the people filing past the coffin to pay their respects had to be dragged out as emotion mounted, others breached security gates, forcing the building’s closure and clashes between fans and police were seen close to the home of the Presidency.
Maradona is iconic, as is the Pink House. Juan and Eva Perón delivered their famous speeches to the masses gathered in Plaza de Mayo from the balconies of Government House. Maradona also knows those balconies – his death brings back memories of the huge crowds that flocked to the Plaza de Mayo in 1986 to celebrate Argentina’s World Cup win in Mexico. The diminutive star, flanked by his teammates and then-president Raúl Alfonsín, headed the celebrations, clasping the World Cup trophy in joy. The squad captained by Maradona returned to those same balconies in 1990, after the national team had lost the World Cup final in Italy. There was no golden trophy to brandish to the adoring crowds that time (Alfonsín was out of office by then and Carlos Menem was president), but still, the team received a hero’s welcome, having knocked out arch-rivals Brazil and hosts Italy on their way to the final.
The botched World Cup run in 1994 was a different story. Maradona tested positive for ephedrine and was thrown out of the tournament in the United States. There was nothing to celebrate. Maradona’s drug addiction was biting. He returned to Casa Rosada for one last goodbye to a man who, if you read between the lines of the bombast, essentially wanted to go down as a footballer.
Buenos Aires was silent for most of the day on Wednesday. People appeared to lay tributes at stadiums, but the mood was more sombre than celebratory. The gatherings – springing up across the city, at football stadiums and most notably at the Obelisk – gradually grew more raucous. And then, at 10pm, applause for El Diez thundered through the metropolis, a thank you for what he had given his country.
As for the country, the message is that everything else in Argentina will now have to wait. Three days of national mourning were declared to remember, in the words of the presidential decree, “the best player in the world.” The divisions about Maradona’s leftist political views and his support for the government? Wait. The opinions about his sordid private life? Wait. The punishing inflation rate? Wait. The negotiations with the International Monetary Fund? Wait. The speculation about a major rift between Fernández and his vice-president? Wait. The business lobbies’ complaints about the wealth tax? Wait. Even if you are rolling your eyeballs at all the fuss about the demise of a little man, you will have to wait to have your say.
Eventually political life will recommence, bringing the usual volatility with it. But this will not pass without having a jolt from the massive show of grief. The national government's future will depend, in 2021, an election year, on how it manages the coronavirus vaccination scheme, which it claims will begin in early January.
The pandemic is not over and it can still lead to controversy. That was proven again this week when Gerardo Zamora, the governor of Santiago del Estero Province and an ally of the national government, was forced to apologise when local police tried to stop a family and Abigail, their ailing cancer-stricken young daughter, from going back home, arguing they did not have a permit. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has ruled that the province of Formosa must open its borders to allow thousands of stranded residents to move.
Once Maradona has been laid to rest, a host of issues will come to the fore once again. It will be a challenging time for the president – Alberto Fernández's popularity has suffered since lockdown was first declared on March 20, though polls show it is holding up despite the crippling effects of the pandemic on Argentina’s economy.
Fernández admitted in a recent interview that he has not spoken to the vice-president, the leader of the powerful Kirchnerite wing of the ruling Peronist coalition, for nearly a month and that they have differing views on many issues. One way of looking at the purported argument is that these key allies are happy to be off each other's back. The immediate future will show if the president is more ultimately relaxed and can make his own political calls, with the vice-president simply looking on from the wings.