Poverty is Older than Opulence

Maverick Serbian filmmaker, Emir Kusturica (Time of the Gypsies; Underground), talks with Diego Maradona, the best player EVER and the subject of Kusturica’s documentary-in-progress, about Bush Jr, Castro, John Paul II and the poor of Argentina.

Diego Maradona is the man who exploded the shame of the entire world in June 1986, in an historic dribble during a match between Argentina and England. He whizzed by seven players, and I believe those players represented everyone who had humiliated his peoples for years and years. This was their revenge.

In those few seconds, Maradona dribbled past
Margaret Thatcher,
Ronald Reagan,
Great Britain,
the Queen Mother,
Prince Charles,
Pope John Paul II,
and – since football is a game of imagination
– George Bush father and son!
That was enough.

Not since Paul Breitner – the German player nicknamed the “engaged footballer” during the romantic 70s – had a footballer so brazenly taken the side of the poor. And some think footballers are stupid – indeed almost everyone does. And of course, we assume they are uneducated. I am happy to disagree.
In order to play well you need an excellent notion of space and time which, to me, are the two essential references in a human life.
A good footballer is like a major architect –
he builds the structure of the game,
draws it.

The best players in the world are of that kind and, among them, Maradona is the greatest architect.

He played with great freedom and never allowed his game to be poisoned by tactics and strategies. When thinking of his time, one thinks of a bygone era, with a game much more based on feelings. Today, we see pitbulls running on a field too small for their powerful engines – this is also true for basketball and other sports, by the way. Players pump weights and muscles, and become “explosive”.

In the Maradona years, players ran half as fast but football required more skill. And that goal-alone against England in Mexico, well, it marks the end of individualism in this sport. In fact, I visualised this action like a film, the way studying the renaissance would be for an architect. How could anybody, at that time and place, pass all those guys and score?

He comes back from the front,
he gets the ball as a pivot,
passes the first in his camp,
then gets around the second
– it’s as if it had been written for a cartoon. No, rather for the cinema
– great players make the great events,
it’s not fiction and yet it remains completely unreal.
Because the ball, that most accomplished of geometrical
forms, can fly in ways nobody can imagine.

Every match is just a shadow of this Argentina-England match, and through this film [Maradona, Kusturica’s documentary-in-progress on Diego], I wanted to mark, with him, the end of our footballistic time.

The film has seven chapters and seven characters. I will add incrustations, to match to his life the seven personalities he passed for this historical goal.

I think Maradona’s own goal [with this film] is political. He is a Catholic but he hates the Pope. He spoke to me a lot about John Paul II, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Africa because he didn’t want people to use condoms. But this is also a story of Latin America, of which he’s the product. A story of the military dictatorships imposed by Henry Kissinger and his ilk, a story of people’s revolts against what North Americans wish to impose on them. That a few corporations would want to lead people to the ultimate expression of democracy doesn’t make any sense. Look at the Real Madrid with its millions of dollars; it’s the Pepsi-Cola of football. Maradona represents what, in life and in football, is essential November 2005. I am on an anti-Bush peace train, to a demonstration against his ‘Summit of the Americas’ in Mar del Plata. Chavez will be there for an alternative ‘Summit’. And Maradona is on the train.

Paul Breitner is no longer alone, and the ‘70s are not lost forever. In this train there is no place for the stupidity we associate with footballers. It’s quite the opposite.

Diego Maradona: You know, I learned to play football in the dark. Behind our house, there was the stadium of a team in the fourth league. I played football all day, and when the other children went home I stayed and played in the dark for two more hours. In the dark! I took shots, using only two big sticks as a goal. Ten years after, when I signed my first contract for Argentinos Juniors, I realised how precious those shots in the dark had been! Emir Kusturica: You were born in Favel Fiorito, the poorest part of Buenos Aires. I must ask you what was in your mind, because you’ve never forgotten about those people, and you’ve remained close to them…

Diego Maradona: Poor people will never betray you. Most of my friends – including Coppola my manager – have stolen from me. But my friends from Fiorito have always remained loyal. Although, this is a place of real poverty. Today there may be more asphalt, but poverty is as bad as when I lived there. Politicians and those close to the government became richer and richer. Me too, I had an opportunity to become one of them, but I said NO. I wouldn’t steal from the poor. Only once, in my life, I spoke with Argentina’s politicians, and I told them everything they didn’t want to hear.

EK: Bono Vox and Bob Geldof are not as famous as you, but they are using their popularity for humanitarian actions and self- promotion very well. You wouldn’t do something like that…

DM: Money uses up all your time and you remain with nothing! One must save just a little dignity, pride and sanity. Forty-four years are behind me, and I’m aware of the fact that poverty is progressing. I observe those who have it all, and those who have nothing. I know this is not a problem unique to Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, or Cuba… Americans crushed our heads. Look what they did to us in the ‘70s. They turned us into babies – I speak metaphorically of course…They sponsored military regimes in Argentina (30,000 killed), and then in Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala. First they hit you, and then they let you perish. Much later they come back with credits and loans. You end up like a dog, and living like a dog. But this will not work any longer, we will no longer tolerate that kind of politics.

After all the military dictatorships and the fascist regimes in Latin America, we are once again united. Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, we are again together to express loud and clear, what we think of that criminal Bush. But Emir, I don’t know why I have to tell you any of this. You are with us, aren’t you? What are your feelings about all of this? EK: I’m like Charlie Chaplin who is walking down the street and someone gives him a flag! Let’s speak about the relations within America. If I understand correctly, they just smashed your brains, like they did with the OIL Agreement. They gave money to Mexico, and created 30,000 jobs. Some Mexicans had a salary but most of the money went to another country, not Mexico…

DM: Yes, that’s right! Mexico too is very poor, except for those 30,000 salaried people. It is always the same story – they take everything and leave you with crumbs.

EK: So, what do we do? It sounds like this has been happening since the Pharaohs and the Roman Empire?

DM: What do we do? It is hard to change these things, but it is important that we speak about them! Unfortunately, even the Pope doesn’t want to speak about these problems… He only has one thing in his mind: how to keep the Vatican. And just like America, the Vatican is a very rich and powerful empire.
John Paul II only went to Africa to kiss the ground and feed poor little children. Did you know he was offered 150 million dollars for a condom commercial? An agency offered him the money, but the Pope didn’t believe in condoms! But he took the money and of course nobody speaks about that. But it’s in the documentations at the Vatican! And no one mentioned how the Pope abandoned Africa. This is incredible… The number of poor people has increased nine-fold since the Berlin wall came down.

We are approaching Mar del Plata, and some of the protesters are sleeping. One can feel a forgotten air of solidarity. Just like the characters in the films of the 70s, who chose their own destiny. I believe that every word from Maradona is the expression of expectations and the understanding of today’s world.
Once upon a time, he was like a God, like the myth of Gilgamesh.
An epic story of the destruction of a God made of mud.
From the time when he was the one and only magician of the game, to the moment he was without oxygen. Stuck in a place where he couldn’t breathe, and from which he couldn’t escape. He was more popular than the Pope.
Way on top, so high he didn’t have enough oxygen.

And nobody had told him that such heights were not safe for him! He started to take cocaine, as in Gilgamesh the “God of mud” was hit and brought back to earth. He began to breathe again, and find himself, like the guy in the spaghetti commercial, the fat Gauchos. Even then, he was restless, trying to gather enough air around him. He wanted to be “normal”, and this led him to clinical death. For four minutes!

But the dream is back! And I am a witness, seated next to him. I’m very lucky to be part of his resurrection. All had abandoned him, except his family and Fidel Castro. When the hospital in Buenos Aires closed its doors to him, Fidel hugged him.

People thought that he would never live without the drugs, that he couldn’t support the burden of glory. But that was never the case! By looking at his biography one can see that he could no longer handle himself; he could no longer take care of himself. When he became a professional, River Plate offered him a lot of money, but he refused and went to Boca Juniors; when some supporters tried to blackmail him, he fought with them; when his coach lied to him, he destroyed the dressing room at the stadium. He never really believed that money is just a waste of time…

Diego Maradona: I remember my father, when he came back from work, and he hadn’t earned enough for his eight children. We waited for him in silence, because there was no food. People can’t understand this, especially those who have never been hungry. My sister had to eat less so that I could have some of her portion. This kind of empathy, love and care; these stories from my childhood won’t disappear just like that. My mother faked stomach ache just to save food for her kids, and she always looked in the pots to verify again and again if there was any food in them. Now Emir, my brother, that is poverty, yes, that’s what it is…When your mother has to lie to feed you.

EK: Yes, this is poverty, and it’s very sad. There are people who forget, or try to forget this very quickly. How do you keep that feeling from your childhood?

DM: I cannot forget! Poverty is older than opulence. My father worked on Kvantaca markets and always carried heavy bags, even when he was old. When he got home my mother would put ice on his neck and on his back, to soothe the pain. And we kids would always circle them both. That was like some kind of ritual that cannot vanish from my memory…

EK: Let’s talk about aristocracy among poor people. What is the strongest memory from the time of your childhood?

DM: Dignity! We never had birthday parties; we never had money for that. Friends, family and cousins would give you a kiss on your birthday, and that kiss was the biggest present. I can speak a lot about bourgeoisie and poverty. I never made the difference, but I know it is not usually the case for people who become rich. I have no doubts. People end up compromising themselves to be in the circle of politicians, and politicians use them when they need their services. One must be mad not to enter that game. And yes, I’m mad, and I rather be mad then take what they have on offer. You know, Emir, I was a dead man for four minutes, and now I know what life is….

EK: Since Ethiopia and “Live Aid” Bob Geldof is richer than before. Bono travels all over the world and asks the presidents to cancel the debt of the poor African countries. He even lunched with Bush.

 DM: I know one thing: I will never have enough courage to lunch with Bush…
 
EK: Why?

DM: I would not be comfortable eating with a massmurderer.

EK: Garcia Marquez told me that whatever we say about Fidel, he has been the guardian of Hispanic cultural heritage in Latin America.

DM: Yes, that is true, but Argentina is now becoming part of the US. Argentineans have sold to the Yankees all that they’ve got, like the southern part of Argentina, a clean and fertile territory. Everything that Fidel fought against! With this money we just became one of America’s colonies. And they are developing them all over the world…

EK: How did you meet Fidel Castro?

DM: In 1987, I received two awards. One in Cuba and another in the US. I said to the Americans: “Keep your award!”, and I went to Cuba. I met Fidel, and we spoke for five hours about Che Guevara and Argentina. Of course, I had read as a young man about the revolution, and on El Ché, Fidel…I felt in love with Fidel! For me, he is like a lion fighting for his territory. He is the only politician – if we can call him that – who isn’t focused on stealing from the poor. And that’s what Americans are doing…

Emir Kusturica is a Serbian musician and filmmaker. His films include Time of the Gypsies; Black Cat, White Cat, and Underground. He is at work on a documentary on Diego Maradona. This interview was first published the Serbian newspaper, Politika. Translated by Nina Novaković, Matthieu Dhennin and Ntone Edjabe.

 

This piece orginally appeared in Chimurenga 10: Futbol, Politricks & Ostentatious Cripples (December 2006) in which we  scope the stadia, markets, ngandas and banlieues to spotlight narratives of love, hate and the wide and deep spectrum of emotions and affiliations that the game of football generates.

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