Ahead of World Cup 2022, we visit Diego Maradona’s neighbourhood | World Cup

Villa Fiorito, Argentina – There are some stories about Diego Maradona that you cannot believe.

One thing you can do, start at a small school with a sunny, tree-lined, orange-colored courtyard. Maradona attended primary school in the poor working-class city of Villa Fiorito on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

According to neighbor legend, he walked home from school, kicking and fiddling with the orange he got for dessert at school as if it were a soccer ball, an object he had Learn to dominate.

“It’s a famous story,” said Cristian Bustos, 44, a longtime Fiorito resident, outside the school gates.

Cristian Bustos, resident of Villa Fiorito, inside Maradona’s elementary school [Natalie Alcoba/ Al Jazeera]

Maradona’s football magic as a child amazed coaches.

He left Villa Fiorito and the small white house he lived in with his parents and five siblings as a teenager. He left for the La Paternal neighborhood in Buenos Aires, where he played for Argentina Juniors, before moving to Boca Juniors in the same city and then stepping onto the international scene.

But the spirit of the controversial and beloved superstar continues to resonate throughout Fiorito, even two years after his death at the age of 60 from heart failure and pulmonary edema. His image is etched on the bare skin of the community.

Murals painted Maradona on the facades of houses and sports clubs. The images are on the outside of a dirt field used by a local football club and on crumbling walls that locals pass on their way to and from work.

Bustos, who works at the Fiorito Cultural Center, said: “I think all of us in the neighborhood have a little bit of Maradona in us. “Those of us who were born in Fiorito who struggled to create it, we understand what it means to fight against power.”

Fiorito has changed since Maradona worked with that orange on the street. There is electricity, running water and modest beauty projects. A street corner where neighbors once dumped trash is now a grassy square, and the dirt yard where Maradona honed his skills is packed with houses.

Maradona mural inside Estrellas Unidas . clubhouse [Natalie Alcoba/ Al Jazeera]

The school where he received his oranges underwent a renovation and a mural of a young Maradona adorns the school’s courtyard.

“This has always been Maradona’s school,” said Laura Fleitas, 46, who has worked at the school since 1998.

“His grandmother and godmother both work here. His grandmother is a cook. In the neighborhood, they are very popular.”

Claudio “Tati” Villarruel, 48, has also heard stories passed down from his father, who co-founded Estrellas Unidas, the Fiorito soccer club where Maradona first played as a youngster. It was then called Estrellas Rojas.

In its early days, it was a small neighborhood club that operated from the kitchen table of its residents and later formalized its activities with a club not far from where Maradona lived.

Claudio ‘Tati’ Villarruel outside the clubhouse of Estrellas Unidas, the neighboring team in Villa Fiorito where Maradona played before becoming a star [Natalie Alcoba/ Al Jazeera]

Recently, Villarruel’s uncle, Osvaldo, reminisced about how a 5- or 6-year-old Maradona would dance around him and other older boys with a ball, much to their dismay. On some days they send him stuff, laughs Villarruel, who grew up five blocks from Maradona’s original home and is now the general secretary of Estrellas Unidas.

The club held a barbecue and party on October 30 to mark Maradona’s birthday, attracting musicians, artists, relatives and former teammates to the clubhouse, which was decorated with Maradona’s image.

Maradona’s contemporaries embrace and reminisce about their own glory days on the pitch and how quickly time flies. After that, all poured into the street to inaugurate a new street sign named Maradona.

For many here, what they love is not just Maradona’s greatness on the pitch, but his defiance of it. He attacked American imperialism, the wealth of the Vatican, and lamented the growing impoverishment of Argentines.

Maradona fans gather at Villa Fiorito to celebrate his 62nd birthday on October 30, 2022 [Natalie Alcoba/ Al Jazeera]

Villarruel said: “I can’t imagine this World Cup without Diego because Diego brought it enthusiasm and pride.

“We still miss him for all the things he can say. He never kept silent. And despite all that he went through with his addiction, that didn’t change anything for us because he wasn’t the only one, and as he said: You can’t dirty the ball.”

For all that has changed in Fiorito, many things have remained the same. The area where Maradona lives now has a sewage system, but the whole other area doesn’t yet. Fiorito continued to strain under poverty.

A mural honoring Maradona in the neighborhood where he grew up [Natalie Alcoba/ Al Jazeera]

Maradona’s childhood home, which the Argentine government name a place of historical significance last year, became a kind of shrine to the star. Fans left flower flags outside even though the house was not open to the public and was in disrepair. Maradona’s mother is said to have given the property to a woman she knew, and that woman’s son now lives there.

Bustos lamented that much has yet to be done to preserve the historic significance of the house and the other connections Fiorito had with Maradona, which he believes could be an economic driver for locals. .

While residents revel in the pride of living on Maradona’s original estate, he says they’ve also gotten used to the photos that don’t make any real changes.

“We know because we live with it,” says Bustos. “They lied to us many times. It speaks to why we fight against power and things like that, which Diego did and which I think a lot of people have adopted.”

Bustos is focused on creating more creative outlets for its community. He has worked with local muralists on projects that add color to the streets.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, they created an “outdoor gallery” of murals on homes that, in some cases, are dedicated to those who have battled the disease. “Convirtiendo el dolor a color,” he says in Spanish, means “turning pain into something colorful.”

Exterior of Estrellas Unidas, the football club where Maradona first played at Villa Fiorito [Natalie Alcoba/ Al Jazeera]

Although Maradona has long since left Fiorito, the kinship he has forged with the people living here remains.

Bustos said: “I like that he fights with people. “And that dominant aura – I think all of us from Fiorito have a little bit of that feeling too. Everyone wants a piece of Maradona, not just Fiorito. You feel sorry for how it all ended. A lot of people say he’s lived the life he wants, but I don’t think he’s been taken care of properly either.”

Maradona is gone, but the people of Villa Fiorito continue to live with him. Gustavo Horacio Insaurralde, 39, works next to a towering statue of Maradona sitting on a football field painted on the back of a building in town.

He works five days a week as a cardboard collector, scouring the streets of Buenos Aires for recyclable materials that he will then sell. He piled huge sacks with his daily numbers in front of a Maradona mural. Each of those cardboard-filled bags, he said, represents “the bread I bring home for my family.”

Gustavo Horacio Insaurralde, resident of Villa Fiorito, in front of Maradona mural [Natalie Alcoba/ Al Jazeera]

Insaurralde reflects on the joy Maradona brought to everyone. He tried to pay tribute to him after his death, joining the crowds lining up to see his coffin in Argentina’s presidential palace, but skirmishes broke out between the people. Fans and authorities meant he never got inside.

“Diego is a magician,” said Insaurralde. “Perhaps as a person, he is not what we expected. There were things that he did that made us punish the boys and you have to teach the kids that they don’t work. But the reality is with the ball, he’s done wonders. He lifted the shirt up.”


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