ROSARIO, Argentina — After the recent death of his Argentine countryman Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest soccer player of all time but also a man who spent much of his life battling personal demons, Pope Francis has addressed the superstar’s legacy.
“On the pitch he was a poet, a great champion who gave great joy to millions of people, in Argentina and in Naples. But he was also a very fragile man,” Francis said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport.
“Doping nullified his dignity,” the pope said.
Famously, Maradona had two controversies regarding drug use as a player.
During the 1994 World Cup, he failed a routine drug test after a first-round match against Nigeria. The explanation at the time was that the prohibited substance was a component of an energy drink, and thus an innocent mistake. Today, the level of ephedrine in his blood would be allowed for a professional sports player.
Three years later, while playing in Argentina’s professional league, Maradona tested positive for cocaine and his career ended soon afterwards.
The Italian newspaper that interviewed the pope, famous for the pink paper upon which it’s printed, has published a short book of a conversation between Francis and journalist Pier Bergonzi, defining it as the pope’s “secular encyclical” and distributing it with the Saturday edition of the paper.
The meeting between the pope and Bergonzi was held in the Santa Marta residence on Vatican grounds where the pope lives, taking place after the Nov. 25 passing of Maradona. The soccer star was 60 at the time of his death.
“I met Diego Armando Maradona on the occasion of the Peace Match in 2014: I remember with pleasure everything Diego did for Scholas Occurrentes, a [pontifical] foundation that takes care of the needy around the world,” he said.
“When they told me about Maradona’s death, I prayed for him and sent the family a rosary with words of comfort.”
Asked about his wishes for 2021, Francis answered with words Maradona had written on a jersey he’d gifted the pontiff: “My wish is very simple, I say it with the words that he wrote on a shirt he gave me: ‘Better a clean defeat than a dirty victory.’ It is the most beautiful way to play your life, with your head held high. I wish it to everyone, not just athletes. May God give us holy days.”
Francis is an avid sports fan, particularly of the Argentine soccer team San Lorenzo, and he spoke about all things athletic in the interview. The pontiff develops seven key concepts: Loyalty, commitment, sacrifice, inclusion, group spirit, asceticism and rescue.
The pontiff shared the story of how he found out about the 1986 World Championship that Argentina won in great part due to Maradona, defeating Germany in the final. The then Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio was in Frankfurt, learning German and collecting material for a doctoral thesis that he eventually left unfinished.
“It was a difficult time for me,” the pope said of those days. “I hadn’t been able to see the World Cup final, and I only found out about the result the day after Argentina’s victory over Germany, when a Japanese boy wrote on the blackboard [of our German lessons] ‘Viva la Argentina’.”
“Personally, I remember it as a victory of loneliness, because I had no one with whom to share the joy. Isolation makes you feel lonely, while what makes happiness beautiful is being able to share it with someone,” Francis reflected.
Speaking about his fondest soccer-related memories from his childhood, he shared that growing up in Buenos Aires, his middle to lower-class family used to enjoy going to Sunday games whenever San Lorenzo played.
“I have a special memory of the 1946 championship, the one that my San Lorenzo won,” the pontiff said, using the possessive “mine” in Spanish. “I remember those days spent watching the players and the happiness of us boys, when we returned home: the joy, the happiness on our faces, the adrenaline in the blood.”
When he left for Rome in 2013 to vote in the conclave that elected him, he left behind in his Buenos Aires office a piece of wood from the seats found in the old San Lorenzo Stadium. One of the few known indulgences of a man who famously took the bus and the metro instead of having an assigned driver, was donating $100 to help build the new stadium of San Lorenzo. As a “thank you,” he got a piece of the seats from the old Gasometro.
Another memory he shared as an avid soccer fan but a player born with two left feet was something called the “rag ball,” still a staple of the slums that surround Buenos Aires which he used to walk through as a child.
“Leather was expensive, and we were poor. Rubber was not common yet, but a rag ball was enough for us to have fun and do almost miracles, playing in the little square near home,” he said.
Even today, many kids in poor neighborhoods throughout Latin America and Africa play with these balls made from cloth, even several pairs of socks balled together, with some scotch tape. It’s the same sort of ball Maradona played with growing up.
As he shared many times before, the pope said that when he was a kid he’d play goalkeeper, because even though he liked the sport, he was far from being the best. Being a goalkeeper, he said, “was a great school of life. The goalkeeper always has to be ready to respond to the dangers that can come from anywhere. And I also played basketball. I liked basketball, because my dad was attached to the San Lorenzo basketball team.”
Asked about a sporting event or legend that particularly touched him, Francis referred to legendary Italian cyclist Gino Bartali. When the pontiff visited the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem, Francis was told about this cyclist believed to have saved 800 Jews from the Nazis, by hiding papers in his bike frame and riding hundreds of miles a day between Florence and Assisi, knowing that, if caught, he’d be killed.
“He pedaled hundreds of kilometers a day, knowing that if they had stopped him it would have meant his end,” Francis noted. “But in this way, he offered a new life to entire families persecuted by the Nazis, also hiding some in his home. It is said that he helped about 800 Jews to be saved from barbarism.”
The cyclist, Francis recalled, used to say that “good” is something done, not spoken about. If not, he asked, “What good is it?”
Bartali was a devout Catholic who kept his heroic acts a secret to his dying day, despite going on to become one of Italy’s most famous sports personalities and, later, a pundit on Italian TV. He never talked about it, not even with his family.
Today, there’s a day-long “race” on the Tuscan roads Bartali would have trained on, close to his home near Florence. The race path follows his smuggling route to Assisi which he would have ridden many times during the war.
“Yad Vashem considers him ‘Righteous among the nations,’ recognizing his commitment,“ Francis said. “It is the story of an athlete who left a world a little better than he found it.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma