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Maradona: Priest and Victim of a Dark Argentine Ritual

At the edge of death, but still clinging to life, Diego Maradona seems these days both priest and victim of a tragic Argentine ritual. Intense and long suffering, Argentines know how to create universal heroes like Eva Perón and Ché Guevara. The Argentine football star nearly rose to that lofty pedestal.

Evita and Ché were serious people throughout their public careers. They gave themselves over to huge, dangerous, and heroic deeds. They fought to change the world and they willingly carried the burdens of legions of people on their shoulders.

Both demanded too much from their fragile health. Death at an early age ended their lives. Political failure killed Ché, and illness took Evita's life, possibly saving her from the kind of political calamity that befell her husband a few years later.

For both, early death elevated their stature in the alchemy of history. The old never make good heroes. Early death evokes a beautiful destiny interrupted before its pinnacle - and hence before it tumbles into inevitable collapse. However irrational, this is a powerful idea.

So what we celebrate in these tragic heroes are people much like us, but with an uncommon talent and capacity to lend historical resonance to their destiny. We celebrate them as individuals who demonstrate how far we can travel in life, how beautiful human beings can actually be. But to be effective in the cause of heroism, the hero must die promptly.

Maradona, however, is no tragic hero. He is a hero of happiness. His battles were in a decidedly popular art. His was a theatrical performance staged in a marvelous setting; and his victories were triumphs of beauty and intelligence.

His expulsion from the 1982 World Cup for illegal drug use placed him, in the public's mind, on the path to tragedy, but the long cord of death, already tugging at him, had put him there years before. Like Evita and Ché, he bore the people's burden of expectation on his shoulders. True, his task was lighter, but that didn't lessen the weight of the burden. Maradona's helpless soul was suffocated by the people's obsessive and suffocating love; at the same time, he couldn't live without that addictive drug. He was a prisoner of both his genius and his insatiable need for the Argentine public's love.

Now that he's no longer playing football, Argentines demand even more. They want to hear him speak, to know his stories, to feel his presence. But life, unlike football, has more difficult consequences than losing a game. Maradona fails to understand this. He fails to face his addictions - to the fast life and to his not always healthy, but always demanding and unreal relationship with Argentines. Each time, he moves a little closer toward death.

He likes to proclaim, "I'm only a football player. I'm no role model for anyone." But no one hears him. Instead, photographers stake out his hospital room, seeking to show us our hero in his struggle with death. There he is, vulnerable, fat, and weak, but we expect strength.

Maradona has been condemned to lie naked in front of millions of his fans, and his country has been condemned to pursue and reclaim him with its suffocating passion. So tragic a ritual can have no good end.

But it tells us something about Argentine heroes and their fans. The ritual tells us that we are desperately zealous people, seeking mirrors that show our heroes as beautiful, youthful, and exceptional; that we are fascinated with a form of death that freezes our illusions into permanent images, like Evita's embalmed corpse.

Poor Maradona. We, his fellow Argentines, bear ancient sorrows as well as new ones. We have not yet properly mourned, nor reflected upon, our nation's systematic fall into poverty; nor the disappearance of former President Carlos Saúl Menem's mirage of a First World Argentina; nor our institutions' loss of legitimacy; nor our corruption and our violence.

I don't blame Maradona for staying away from the country in the last few years. There is enough sorrow in Argentina without him. Sadly, he has now become the victim of our collective sorrow. It's no surprise that his health has grown worse since his return.

Even when he could scarcely breathe with the help of an automatic respirator, Argentines wanted him to assume his role in their dark ritual: "Show us a good time, bring our hearts some fun."

Near the hospital, in the clear air, on a street of the sad city that invented the tango, the dark ceremony is nearing completion, just as if it were taking place in a temple. Messages, snatches of diary entries, and photos are plastered on the hospital's walls. Many people gather outside; some pray; others have built pagan altars. The songs of Fito Paéz, another popular artist, rise through the air, accompanied by the necessary melancholy intoned by the crowds. This seems a desperate farewell:

"Show us a good time, bring our hearts some fun."

But what can our hero do at this hour? He's preoccupied with his own enlarged heart, which, though weary, continues to beat.

I have some advice for you, Diego: now that the hospital has discharged you, pack your bags and head for the airport.