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'God gave him his talent, the world gave him its love' - Argentina marks first Maradona birthday since legend's passing

13:00 GMT 01/11/2021
Diego Maradona Tribute Boca Juniors
October 30 has always been a special day on the football calendar but it has taken on greater significance now the national idol is no longer with us

Ten minutes had passed in Racing Club's otherwise rather forgettable 2-1 defeat at the hands of Defensa y Justicia on Friday when the game, and, it seemed, time itself ground to a halt.

Matias Rojas' impending corner into the Defensa penalty area was put on hold as the entire Cilindro came together as one for a rousing chorus.

“Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole! Diego! Diego!” exploded from every corner of Racing's imposing home stadium, the first playing of a scene that would be repeated across the weekend to create the most poignant of tributes to Argentina's departed hero.

Saturday marked the 61st birthday of Diego Maradona; the first since his passing in November 2020.

The 10th-minute pause was present in every game played in Argentina; a minute of rousing applause in some cases, drones flying his Argentina shirt over the ground in others and even a short film in remembrance in the Bombonera home of his beloved Boca Juniors, in the presence of eldest daughter Dilma.

In a wonderful coincidence that Boca happened to take on Gimnasia, the club Maradona coached at the time of his passing, on the very day of his birthday.

Upon converting an early penalty against the hosts, local folk hero Luis Rodriguez kissed the image of Diego which glared proudly from his chest - a moving homage to the man who gave him his only Argentina cap during those surreal days at the Albiceleste helm from 2008 to 2010.

Rodriguez was not the only man to feel the weight of the occasion. Few in Argentine football, or the country as a whole, have been untouched by the force of the late legend's magnetic personality and the events of the last three days only further prove the importance of the kid from the slums that put his nation on top of the world. 

The overall feeling was not one of sadness or regret but of gratitude for the man who delivered World Cup joy in 1986 and, in all four corners of the planet, became synonymous with Argentina.

It was also a moment of much-needed catharsis: after the long months of suffering and separation caused by Covid-19, life is returning to the nation's streets and stadiums, its two great public forums in which the people's needs and demands are traditionally made known. 

Over in Rosario, for example, the Church of Maradona was preparing a special celebration to mark the holiest day on its calendar.

“Catholics celebrate Christmas every December 25 when Jesus died 2,000 years ago, how can we not celebrate our first Christmas without Diego,” founding member of the Church Alejandro Veron pointed out to Infobae.

This year's 'mass', which only went ahead via Zoom 12 months ago, thus took place as usual on the eve of October 30, in the city's Místico Tablon five-a-side complex. “There is no cover charge, no cards, nothing. Just reserve first,” Veron added. “Anyone can come. The plan is for there to be barbecued chorizos for everyone and to put together a good tribute.”

The universal nature of the weekend's celebrations was typical of a man who lived his life in public.

Diego received moving eulogies from his contemporaries, former team-mates and adversaries alike, as well as from clubs all over the world. There were tributes from players who began their careers long after he had hung up his own boots but have grown up immersed in the Maradona legend.

There were also words from his old sparring partner Pele, who proclaimed: “God gave him his talent. The world gave him its love,” and even heads of state past and present, such as current Argentina president Alberto Fernandez and Evo Morales, who enjoyed a close relationship with Maradona during and after his time in the Bolivia presidency.

In all, tens if not hundreds of thousands took to stadiums and streets across Argentina and to social media to commemorate this special date. Almost a year ago many of the same fans, in total an estimated million people, had packed the centre of Buenos Aires to say goodbye at his funeral and celebrate with gusto his unique existence.

The same sentiment prevails as in that bitter moment; even if the mortal Maradona is gone, his presence and memory continue to live on in the hearts of fans everywhere.

For some it might feel like a cliche but the phrase “Diego: 1960-eternity” seems appropriate when talking about this giant of the game, his legend only enhanced in the time he has been absent.

The week leading up to Diego's birthday was also accompanied by the announcement of a curious additional 'tribute'.

Boca and Barcelona are to face off in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at the end of the year in a fixture that appears borne out of financial considerations rather than bereaved fans' need for remembrance.

This is particularly true in the case of Barca, who drove Maradona out of Camp Nou when he failed to match expectations and did little to commemorate his life or memory while he was still on this earth. 

Argentinos Juniors and Napoli, his first home and adopted home respectively and the two clubs whose stadiums bear his name, would have been far more appropriate choices.

While that may have satisfied Maradona, those clubs were hardly attractive enough for the commercial behemoths who, much to Diego's chagrin, control the game.

Far more significant was the decree signed on Wednesday by President Fernandez naming Maradona's childhood home in the neighbourhood of Villa Fiorito a National Historic Landmark.

Lovingly tended to by neighbours and Diego devotees – a mural on its humble walls declares the abode “God's home” - the house represented, as the decree aptly states, “loyalty to his origins and the deep bonds that linked him with his family.”

Because, for all his faults and flaws, that is in a nutshell what Maradona means to the Argentine people.

To come from the lowest rung of society, to escape grinding poverty and become the world's greatest, but all the while never forgetting one's roots nor giving up the fight to give those left behind the tools to enjoy a better life; that aspect of the little genius, as well as the goals and trophies, is why he is and always will be celebrated as a national treasure.