"So long commander @Chavezcandanga, we will miss you forever #ChavezVive," posted Maradona reacting to the news of Hugo Chavez passing away. The football legend was one of Chavez's most vocal supporters and well-wishers during his re-election campaigns and his battle against cancer.
In heart and spirit the two were allies, sharing identical views on Bolivarian socialism or more succinctly, economic populism for the poor and anti-imperialism synonymous with anti- USA, or more specifically Bush's empire. Maradona drawing from his narrower perspective of earning his credentials as passionate challenger to Joao Havelange and the FIFA hierarchy in their quest to reduce players to chattel.
Growing up too in impoverished households with resonating stories drew them even closer. So much so when Maradona was fired as Argentina coach for his brinkmanship, the first person he visited was the Venezuelan firebrand, a hugely polarizing figure in his country for career advice.
"I have not come to Venezuela to look for work, I have come to ask my good friend Hugo advice," Maradona said last Friday in Caracas. "It brings me great pride being at the president's side because he fights for the people, for his country and for his ideals. I will be with him until death."
He probably came to the right person because for 14 years, Chavez was the master of re-invention when it came to his political career. Surviving numerous attempts to oust him democratically and then in a US backed coup in 2002.
The Venezuelan came out on top each time as an unabashed champion of the poor and his policies resulted in impressive socio-economic gains, as extreme poverty climbed to below 9% from 24% and unemployment rates dipped to 7.6% from 14.5%. For many anti-war activists here, Chavez was the heroic figure who stood up to George W Bush's trumped up Iraq war mongering as it gathered steam amongst the obsequious and the neo-cons.
Maradona also fought huge odds and upheavels in his colourful life. Coming to Napoli after being run out of Barca where he suffered a potentially career ending ankle injury at the hands of Andoni Goikoetxea. He was anointed the city's patron saint after succeeding in bringing them their first Scudetto before he fell out with his drug use and connections to the Camorra and had to leave in disgrace. In his autobiography, he revealed the stress brought on by trying to overcome single handed the club's inferiority complex drilled into their psyche by their northern rivals.
1986 also brought him international recognition and adulation in his country and all over the world while being slated by the English as victims of the sport's most infamous goal. By 1990, his powers had waned and in 1994, he reached the nadir, sent off after failing a drug test. Maradona's post career was marked with ill health and frequent bouts of drug and alcohol addiction. But he seems to have turned it around since 2007 and has been incident free.
Chavez's burnished his anti- imperialist credentials with his memorable UN speech engendering as much revilement on the right as it did blushes in the toothless international community. A distaste shared by Maradona for the former US president wearing a STOP BUSH T-shirt and calling him "human garbage" on his Argentina visit. For all of Bush's empty talk of being a uniter not a divider, it must be remembered that Chavez was lauded despite myriad ideological differences, for his commitment to his continent and its integration. Chavismo is as powerful as Peronism today. Eduardo Galeano, who wrote the superb vignettes in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, said this:
"This tyrant invented by the mass media, this fearsome demon, has just given a tremendous vitamin-injection to democracy, which, both in Latin America and elsewhere, has become rickety and enfeebled."
Having Maradona as friend was also good election strategy. The Che Guevara T- shirt toting soccer legend and host of a popular TV show was also firm friends with Evo Morales and Fidel Castro, two of Chavez's ideological soulmates, and the photo ops reassured the populace that their hearts belonged to them as their political alliance held fast in solidarity against empire. On one of his many visits to Miraflores, the presidential palace in Caracas, Maradona appearing in a TV show said to thunderous applause:
"I believe in Chávez, I am Chávista. Everything Fidel does, everything Chávez does, for me is the best."
Venezuela is known as a baseball powerhouse while its football is considerably lower rung in the powerful CONMEBOL fraternity. But Chavez the baseball loving, one time MLB dreamer grew visibly into the sport and was front and centre in that country's hosting of the 2007 Copa America. While convalescing in the Cuban countryside from cancer surgery, snacking on fruit, and flanked by his two daughters, he recounted the number of well-wishers. Amongst the number of South American heads of states, he said one name with particular relish: Diego Armando Maradona." Che, I'm on my way there." Maradona!"