If Maradona had not been the best soccer player in the world, he probably would have been a revolutionary. Over the course of his career and public life, he’s been an outspoken critic of the Catholic church, FIFA, the banks, the politicians, U.S. foreign policy – most systems of power, basically.
“Where do you get your sense of justice?” filmmaker Emir Kusturica asked the Argentinean legend in a documentary about Maradona’s life. “I just had to raise my voice after seeing the world, from visiting Cuba, reading Che Guevara,” he confessed.
In July 1987, after winning the World Cup in Mexico, and as a star of Italian side Napoli who had just won FIFA Ballon d’Or, Maradona made his first visit to the Caribbean Island. His relationship with Cuba was a symbol of rebellion in his professional career. Instead of attending an award ceremony by the now defunct United Press International, he traveled to Cuba to receive the award given by the Prensa Latina agency, which recognized Latin American athletes.
His first visit to Cuba, as well as his experience meeting Fidel Castro was like love at first sight.
“That time we spent like five hours speaking about Cuba, about Argentina, about El Che, and I simply fell in love with Fidel. He seemed to me like a monster that defends the land. He is the only politician no one can call a thief,” Diego said about his experience.
He returned to Cuba in 1994 on the heels of the World Cup scandal in which he tested positive for drugs and was expelled from the tournament. In a way, this presaged his third visit in 2000, when he arrived in Cuba seeking medical treatment for drug addiction and a heart illness. “Thanks to football, I’ve had the chance to talk to the world,” he stated after his rehabilitation treatment.
El Diego became Cuba’s biggest defender, long before the U.S. made any indication of wanting to lift the economic embargo.
“I don’t care about being gracious, when someone defends the United States, I defend Cuba. Fidel is a great man. I have him tattooed on my leg,” he said.
To this day Maradona has remained a friend and an unofficial spokesman for Fidel Castro, even interviewing Fidel for his television show DE ZURDA (With the Left), which aired on Venezuelan TV channel Telesur.
The two also developed a correspondence, which seems to have built a lasting friendship, and even halted rumors of Castro’s death. This January, Maradona confirmed the good health of 88 year-old Castro – who had been missing from public life for so long he was rumored to be dead – after publicizing a letter he’d received from the ex-leader of Cuba.
The player known as La Mano de Dios has yet to share his feelings on the warming relations between the United States – a country he has been vocal about hating – and his beloved Cuba.