Ecce Diego: The Maradonian Church

With the FIFA World Cup kicking off shortly in Brazil, the latest New Religious Manifestations post looks at the Maradonian Church, which regards the Argentine footballer Diego Maradona as divine.

La Iglesia Maradoniana, or the Maradonian Church, is a new religious movement that I have known about for several years and have never quite understood. The religious movement is part parody, but, to some it seems to be a genuine form of religious expression. My curiosity increased when my efforts to communicate with the Church’s Twitter account resulted in a rebuff, which was coupled with an inability to access the official (presumably defunct) website. The Church claims somewhere between 120,000 to 200,000 followers worldwide, and it started in Diego Armando Maradona’s hometown of Rosario, Argentina, at the turn of the millennium. But from a distance, I keep asking myself, what is this phenomenon?

For those who don’t know, Diego Maradona was an Argentine footballer who played for some of the largest clubs in the world in the 1980s and early 1990s: Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires; the eponymous city clubs of Barcelona, Napoli, not to mention Sevilla; and Newell’s Old Boys (Rosario, Argentina). He spent a large part of his career at Napoli where he won numerous titles. He was a staple of the Argentine national team in the 1980s, culminating in their 1986 World Cup win in Mexico. It was at this World Cup, in a quarter final match against England, that Maradona entered “legendary status.” His career was soured by testing positive to cocaine use in 1991. After retiring from football, Maradona had a series of public weight, alcohol, and drug battles, spending some time in rehab in Cuba, where he became friends with Fidel Castro. Maradona has had a mediocre coaching career and at one point, had a variety entertainment show on Argentine television. Does this sound like the biography of a god?

According to the Maradonian Church, it is. Do people really believe that Maradona is a god, or, God? It’s difficult to say with certainty, but presumably some do see Maradona as divine, while others see the light-hearted nature of the movement. The Church has practices, which demark it as at least trying to genuinely start a new religion, but more likely, hopelessly parodying Christianity. First, the Church has its own calendar system. The calendar starts on Maradona’s birthday (October 30, 1960), hence making it the year A.D. 53 at the time of publication (presumably, A.D. stands for anno Diego, “in the year of Diego”). Inventing one’s own calendar is one of the most visible ways to distinguish a group. Maradona also has his own sacred name: D10S. The name is a combination of the Spanish word for “god,” dios, and Maradona’s shirt number, 10. The Church even has its own “Ten Commandments.”

Some practices of the Church reinforce the light-heartedness of the Church’s beliefs. The “conversion ceremony” involves the novice wearing a replica #10 Argentine national shirt, while Maradonians throw a ball in the air. The novice is to punch the ball with his hand into an open goal, thus emulating the famous “hand of God” goal, which Maradona scored against England at the 1986 World Cup. It is this act, along with the other goal he scored in the 2-1 victory, that elevated Maradona to legendary, and according to the Church, divine status. In order to truly appreciate the significance of this event, some background needs to be known and remembered: only four years before, England defeated Argentina in the Falklands War, which had significant political ramifications for Argentina. Other practices, seen in Emir Kusturica’s 2008 documentary Maradona, appear to be Masses, if they can be called that, happening at Pizza Banana, an Italian restaurant/nightclub. The documentary also shows footage of exotic dancers in the Pizza Banana, and Church leaders singing Schubert’s Ave Maria while dressed as Catholic priests and placing their hands on a football.

How much is all of this genuine, and how much of it is parody? There is a self-conscious element to the Church in that the founders and followers recognize that it is at least a new movement, but it is not as self-conscious as the fledgling Zuckerberg religion, whose anonymous founder sought crowd-funding on Craigslist. He acknowledges that it can be an out-and-out parody or spoof of organized religion, but at the same time he acknowledges that the mythological and narrative traditions of organized religion are losing some of their appeal in the modern world and that this might be a way to amend such a loss. I haven’t come across such theoretical realizations from the Maradonian Church.

For the Maradonian Church in Argentina at least, social acceptance should not be a problem in theory. While the 1994 constitution ensured that the Federal Government supported the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion (Part One, Chapter One, Section Two), it also guaranteed that citizens could freely express their own religion (Part One, Chapter One, Section Fourteen). I haven’t come across any accounts of the Maradonian Church being persecuted in Argentina. I think the reason that the Church is not larger is that the general public realizes that Maradona is human and not divine. He might be a good footballer, but he’s still not a god.

While Maradona is still alive, the adoration and divine worship by some will still continue: Maradona has at least on some occasions called the Church’s headquarters on October 29th when they were counting down to his birthday, and expressed his love to them. In Kusturica’s documentary, a crowd thronged outside a hotel in Naples and chanted for Maradona, and while visiting Belgrade, Stribor, a man associated with the film, said that it was his first time wearing a shirt because he was meeting a god. It’s hard to believe that this is all for a man whose personal failings were and still are so public. Maybe what Kusturica said in his documentary is true: for gods, all is forgiven.

The Maradonian Church can easily be labeled as idol worship, a joke, or a reaction to the social and economic situation in Argentina after the Falklands War, the ending of military dictatorship shortly thereafter, and the economic troubles of the 1990s, but it shouldn’t be dismissed. For some, it seems to be some sort of genuine religious expression, in the sense that they truly believe (as far as it is possible to tell). It might be possible that the Church even has some fundamentalists, lay persons, not to mention nominals, and heretics! History also has a strange way of remembering. Who would have thought that an obscure Jewish sect 2,000 years ago would become the world’s largest religion while Zoroastrianism has almost disappeared in comparison? Or that a major variant of this religion would begin in rural New York in the 1830s? No one knows how long the Maradonian Church will last, but it is a sign that there are always new religions, new religious expressions, and new religious beliefs manifesting themselves all over the world. Roman emperors and other rulers used to be crowned as living gods, so why is there surprise when a larger-than-life character is called a god by some? Maybe that’s one way to understand this phenomenon as a new religious manifestation.

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