As inevitable as death and taxes, you can be sure that every time a FIFA World Cup rolls around, Diego Maradona’s notorious ‘hand of God’ goal from the 1986 World Cup will be rehashed, replayed and reassessed by football commentators everywhere. This year’s tournament, currently being contested in Russia, is no different.
For La Iglesia Maradoniana – the Church of Maradona – this legendary quarter-final match between Argentina and England is so significant they commemorate it every year as their equivalent of Easter. Not only did the pint-sized superstar get away with his infamous handball goal, he scored another beauty soon after that’s widely considered the goal of the century, and pretty much singlehandedly sent the English team crashing out of the championship.
But wait – the Church of Maradona?
Sí, señores. It may not be on any census form, but somewhere between 120,000 and 200,000 football fans (Lionel Messi and Mike Tyson among them) worship at its altar.
Founded in 1998 by three Argentinean super-fans, it’s based on the premise that “Football is the religion and, like all religions, has a God. The God of football is Argentine and his name is Diego Armando Maradona.” And how’s this for divine inspiration: La Iglesia Maradoniana recites a repurposed Lord’s Prayer (“Our Diego/ Who art on earth/ Hallowed be thy left foot/ Thy magic come/ Thy goals be remembered”) and preaches a tailormade set of Commandments (such as ‘Name your first son Diego’ and ‘Love football above all else’). Baptism involves re-enacting the aforementioned hand of God goal, and Christmas falls on 30 October – the great man’s birthday.
Brazilian football hero Zico recalled watching “Maradona do things that God himself would doubt were possible,” and few would deny that Maradona’s talent came as close to supernatural as it gets. But how does the Maradonian Church reconcile more profane antics like drug addiction and dodgy politics with the object of their devotion?
“With all the cocaine he did, a normal person's body would not have stood it. A mere mortal would have died,” explains a sports journalist close to the player. “Diego is in another dimension. He says and does many stupid things. He makes a mistake and he is pardoned because he is a myth, a living legend.”
Photographs: Latin Times