Diego Maradona: Argentina football icon's off-pitch politics

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Maradona had a tattoo of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, whom he often referred to as his "second father", on his leg

He was widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time, but Diego Maradona was also influential beyond the realm of football.

He cultivated relations with some of Latin America's most prominent and controversial left-wing leaders, including Cuba's Fidel Castro, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales.

The late Cuban leader was a close friend, so close that Maradona had Fidel Castro's face tattooed on his leg; coincidentally, both men died on the same day, 25 November, four years apart.

Their relationship deepened when the footballer settled in Cuba for a few years to recover from his drug addiction.

Maradona said that Castro often called him in the mornings to talk about politics and sports and to encourage him in his recovery. "Fidel was like my second father," said Maradona, who last visited Castro three years before he died in 2016.

"Diego is a great friend and very noble too. There is also no doubt that he is a wonderful athlete and has maintained a friendship with Cuba without any material gain for himself," Castro once said of the football player.

The Argentine star dedicated his autobiography to, among other people, Castro.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Maradona shows off another tattoo, that of Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara, on his arm in Rome in 2001

Maradona was also close to the late Hugo Chávez, and in 2005 he travelled to Venezuela to visit him at the presidential palace. After the meeting, Maradona said that he had gone to meet "a great man" and instead found "a giant".

"Everything Fidel does, everything Chávez does, for me is the best [that can be done]," he later said on Chávez's weekly television show in 2007.

Upon news of Maradona's death, Venezuela's current leader, Nicolás Maduro, shared the following video of Maradona and Castro, saying:

"I am sharing this beautiful video that shows us, Comandante Fidel Castro and Maradona, in a very nice jokey moment for the two, which tells us that it's worth living. Thank you for Life, Thank you Holy God!"

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

Most recently, Maradona backed Evo Morales, when the latter left Bolivia following mass protests and pressure from the head of the army last year. Maradona described the change of power as "a coup".

"I regret the coup orchestrated in Bolivia. Above all for the Bolivian people, and for Evo Morales, a good person who always worked for the most humble. #EvoElMundoEstaContigo [Evo, the world is with you]", he posted on his Instagram account.

Media caption,
Diego Maradona "will live in our heart forever"

As someone with humble beginnings - the son of a factory worker raised in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires - he also championed the cause of the downtrodden.

Cairo-based, Libya-focussed Afrigate said Maradona had been "among the supporters of the Libyan people against the blockade imposed by the Western powers during the last two decades of the 20th Century". The group praised his "eternal humanitarian stances in supporting the oppressed" - in particular the Palestinians - in addition to his "football heroics".

He was later hired by one of the sons of then Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi, Saadi, to help with the latter's brief football career in Italy.

The 'golden ceiling'

One of his most famous stories was precisely one of open criticism of the Vatican when John Paul II was Pope, and what Maradona perceived as a lack of focus on the cause of the poor.

After one visit to the Vatican, he said: "I went in and saw the golden ceiling. And I thought to myself: how can [he]... live with a golden ceiling and then go to poor countries and kiss the boys with the belly like that. I stopped believing, because I was seeing," he said in his autobiography.

Many years later, when an Argentine was appointed Pope, Maradona regained his confidence in the Church. He met Pope Francis several times at the Vatican after he was elected in 2013 as Latin America's first pontiff.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
People shower petals on a Maradona statue in Kolkata, India

Fans of the player in India's football-crazy state of West Bengal are mourning the passing away of their childhood hero, mostly through sharing anecdotes on social media from the time when the football star visited the capital Kolkata in 2008 and 2017.

"Maradona was astonished to see how passionate the city was about him," an editorial in the Bartaman newspaper said, recollecting his 2008 visit, when some 50,000 people thronged the city's airport to welcome the legend.

During his visits, Maradona met heads of rival political parties and the state's football clubs. The football star also unveiled his 12ft (3.7m) bronze statue in Kolkata during the 2017 visit.

In 2018, he also visited Belarus: "He kissed Belarusian soil in Brest and said he could stay and live in Belarus," the Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi tabloid recalls.

It quoted him as saying at the time that he wanted to meet President Alexander Lukashenko and take a picture with him. "I have big memories of Fidel Castro, Chávez, Maduro, Gaddafi. I also know Putin. Now I want to take a picture with Lukashenko. I hope he will become our fan after this."