I entered the church late: mass already underway, the choir already crooning an unknown vesper and the priest heading to the pulpit.
This, however, wasn’t your typical Christian service as, rather than a traditional church, the proceedings were taking place in Pizza Banana, Italian restaurant cum nightclub; rather than eating the body and blood of Christ, a choice of Margherita or Pepperoni pizzas with a complementary beer was available; rather than a classic choir singing about the bible, there were 300 football fans shouting about former glories of Argentina’s national team and, rather than a robed and ordained clergyman giving a sermon, there was a short, rotund man in a football shirt speaking from a DJ’s booth.
All in all, just another normal service at the church of Diego Maradona.
The Iglesia Maradoniana was conceived ten years ago by some friends in Rosario. They shared so great a love of the infamous player that today’s 120,000 worldwide members of the church believe that the former Boca and Argentina star is God himself.
In fact, amongst the surreal revelry of their services, it is often hard to discern whether the idea of the church is just a homage-in-jest to Argentina’s greatest footballer or a cult who actually believe that the mortal Maradona is the one true Messiah, as 28-year-old Bálo, one of the church’s ‘Ten Apostles’, suggested: “The church isn’t just a bit of fun, this is a serious celebration of our eternal love for God. I may have only been part of the church for two years but I was born ‘Maradonian’.”
According to the word of the church, ‘football is the religion and, like all religions, has a God. The God of football is Argentine and his name is Diego Armando Maradona.’ The church’s insignia is the portmanteau D10S, a combination of the word Dios (God in Spanish) and Maradona’s shirt number 10.
La Iglesia Maradoniana even goes as far as to have its own ten commandments, for example ‘Do not mention the name Diego in connection with any one club’, own miracles in the form of Maradona’s playing feats and even its own prayers (see box-out).
The church meets biannually: once for ‘Noche buena y Navidad Maradoniana’, or ‘Maradona Christmas Eve and Christmas’, over the eve of the 29thand running into the 30th October to commemorate Maradona’s birthday (and the birthday of the church) and once for ‘Las Pascuas Maradonianas’, ‘Maradona Easter’, on the 22nd June to mark the day that Argentina knocked rivals England out of the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals through two Maradona goals, one of which being the infamous ‘Mano de Dios’.
I was fortunate enough to attend the service of ‘Noche Buena y Navidad Maradoniana’, which this year coincided with the ten year anniversary of the church’s conception and promised a ‘big surprise at midnight’.
La Navidad Maradoniana
The service heading towards its climax, Christmas joy and merriment radiated from the rosy cheeks of all in attendance and a crisp festive air filled the room as the efficient Pizza Banana air conditioning systems clicked up a notch and the free booze set into complexions around the room.
The idea of the ‘Noche Buena y Navidad’ service is to mirror the excitement and celebration of the classic Christian Christmas Eve and Christmas day but replacing the birth of the Good Shepard Jesus Christ with that of Diego Maradona, man of vice.
Already in a state of some consternation at the sight of so many Maradona shirts, videos, books, flags, paintings and Christmas trees, I was flabbergasted to see the procession of the ‘Ten Apostles’.All veiled in white, ten apparitions filed out of a back room, parading themselves with an eerie gravity.They carried different relics representing their faith, ranging from a football boot or a faux world cup trophy to a rosary with 34 beads (the number of goals Maradona scored for his nation) and even a bleeding football adorned in a crown of thorns.
As I sat, digging into a big slice of Sloppy Giuseppe and watching a month-year-old baby being officially baptised as ‘Maradonian’, I was struck by another pang of incredulity. Can this be real? Co-founder Hernán Amez was able to shed more light: “I am not a Catholic. Religion is about feelings and we feel football. I’ve been doing this for ten years now and it’s not just a bit of fun, it’s a religion.”
The quiz was finished, the pizza eaten, the ‘Mano de Dios’ and Maradona tattoo competitions won and all Maradona wedding contracts signed. The atmosphere reached fever pitch as camera crews huddled, fanatical warbling of ‘Volveremos a ser campeones como en ochenta seis’ filled the air and the countdown began, all awaiting the ‘big surprise’.
Alas, Maradona himself wasn’t to turn up but he was reached on the phone, addressing the horde, saying: “God will be with us again and He will give us another victory like 1986.”Whether I find the mention of ‘God’ alarming through its piety or reassuring as it uses the third person, I’m not sure.
Champagne was served shortly after and more preaching did nothing to ebb the torrent of euphoric chanting reverberating off the walls of Pizza Banana’s church all night. Given my nationality and the growing fervour of the pro-‘Mano de Dios’ hymns, I decided to slip off.
Still haunted by the conundrum of such a ridiculous notion juxtaposed with such stern responses from those I asked, I can’t determine whether the Iglesia Maradoniana is a serious joke or an absurd reality, whether Bálo and Hernán Amez were good actors or deadly serious.
The revelry of the service was heightened by the day’s announcement that the inexperienced Maradona is to become Argentina’s new national coach. The absurdity of Maradona being the new coach or, let alone, being God is compounded by the controversy that tarnishes his past. To add to his on-pitch misbehaviour, Maradona has struggled with vices such as alcohol and cocaine addictions as well as obesity and has needed to be medically treated for many health issues.
However, Maradona being God doesn’t seem so ridiculous to all outsiders as a fellow expatriate at the service, Anthony Bale, 23 from Glasgow (interestingly the church has 1,500 Scottish members), told me: “What has Jesus done that Maradona hasn’t? They have both performed miracles, just that Maradona’s are actually on record. The ideologies aren’t so different.”
The next service will be on the 22nd June 2009, visit the website for more details: www.iglesiamaradoniana.com.ar