Church of Maradona celebrates idol’s birthday

November 3rd, 2008 - 11:52 am ICT by IANS  

Buenos Aires, Nov 3 (EFE) Few doubt that retired soccer superstar Diego Maradona enjoys god-like status in Argentina, but anyone who is still in doubt needs only to look at the Maradonian Church, which drew hundreds of fans to celebrate his 48th birthday and recent appointment as coach of the national team.Founded in October 1998 in the northeastern Argentine city of Rosario, the Maradonian Church claims to have more than 40,000 “faithful” worldwide.

Late Wednesday, his devoted followers gathered at a trendy Buenos Aires pizzeria for a celebration in which his “apostles” recited the Maradonian version of the Lord’s Prayer - “Our Diego who art on the Earth, hallowed be thy left foot. Thy magic come, thy goals be remembered” - and marked the year 48 DD (After Diego).

Some ate pizza and drank beer in front of a symbolic altar that featured photographs of the hero of the 1986 World Cup, jerseys, pendants with his signature and even a miniature Maradonian church.

Others patiently waited their turn to be “baptized”, a ritual in which they imitate the 1986 World Cup goal that Maradona scored against England as a result of an illegal - but unpenalized - handball, or as Maradona put it in the post-match press conference, “the hand of God”.

One-month-old Bianca Asticeta became the youngest member of the mock church early Thursday after being baptized in the arms of her father, Daniel, who acknowledged that he is “obsessed with Diego”.

Ivan Rodriguez, 19, one of the many who assumed the “hand of God” pose while heading a soccer ball, said he decided to become baptized in the Church of Maradona “to be part of the life of Maradona” and celebrate his being named coach of the national squad, an appointment to be confirmed next week.

Amid headers, handballs, singing and a quiz on the life of No. 10, the spirited devotees late Wednesday prepared to celebrate their idol’s 48th birthday at the stroke of midnight.

“Christmas is almost here. Maradona is the greatest, the greatest without peer,” the revellers chanted before 10 peals of a bell rang in the new Maradonian year.

The highlight of the evening came at midnight on the dot, when Maradona’s voice was heard live by speaker phone thanking his fans for their support.

“Thank you for giving me so much affection and gathering on a day like my birthday,” Maradona said. The crowd then shouted “Come to us Diego” and “We’ll be champs again like in ‘86,” referring to Argentina’s last World Cup title.

“What you’re singing is the dream I have inside of me,” the new Argentine skipper said, adding that “God is going to be with us”.

“You are God,” one of the more animated fans shouted in reply.

Speaking at the altar, one “apostle” said Maradona’s fans were always at the side of their idol, even in the worst of times, when drug problems put his life in danger.

According to its web site, “the church’s function is to keep alive the passion and magic with which our ‘god’ played soccer, to safeguard in our memories the miracles he performed on the field before the eyes of us all and the feeling he awakened in us, his fans.”

Like any church worth its salt, the one devoted to Maradona has its own bible and commandments: Love soccer above all things, Declare your unconditional love for Diego, Defend the Argentine jersey, Spread Diego’s miracles throughout the universe and Take Diego as your second name and bestow it on your child, are just some of them.

Among the church’s most famous members are Diego’s daughters, Dalma and Giannina, current soccer stars like Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Ronaldinho and even celebrity fans like Spanish singer-songwriter Joaquin Sabina.

“Maradona is the best. (Being named coach) of the national team is what he needed. He wanted that and he’s happy,” said Alan, a 19-year-old who travelled from Rosario to take part in the celebration.

“And even if he fails as head of the national squad, you think we won’t forgive him? God is forgiven for everything, isn’t He? And it’s Maradona,” Alan said.

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