I didn’t realise ’til I was thirteen, I was a bleedin’ idiot until I was thirteen, that when it was time to eat my mother always had a pain in her belly. I swear every time we were going to eat she’d get a pain in her belly, but she wasn’t really sick. It was that there wasn’t enough food, there wasn’t enough to go round so she’d go without in order to make sure we all got enough to eat…
That’s el Diego talking a while back about his mother, the much-loved doña Tota. She died on Saturday, aged 82. Beyond his headline-grabbing declarations, the genuine grief expressed in the newspapers and on the radio over the last day or so has shown the grip Maradona continues to hold on the nation. Free of controversy or bombast, it highlights how important he still is to the heart of the country.
Furthermore, the outpouring reflects one of the most interesting aspects of the Argentine character, how family-orientated they are. Fine, maybe it would be more interesting if to a man they spent their Sundays hunting imaginary geese with silver spatulas clad in lead dungarees, but thus far we have yet to witness such a spectacle. No, despite working long hours, not to mention the extremely high divorce rate, family gatherings remain a central part of Argentine life; most regroup for an asado on Sundays, meat prices permitting. They love their mammies. So when el Diego’s mammy passes away, we think it’s fair to say that far from any nonsense on tv, the nation really does mourn.
To mark the occasion, highlight this, and bring you, dear info-hungry web trawler, something a little different, we’ve decided to translate a short story written about the woman who gave birth to the best player ever. (You can hear an interview with the author, Rodolfo Braceli, with Victor Hugo here). It’s a bit silly at times, we’ll admit, but it’s got some good lines.
It’s flotsom, a footballing nativity. Yet just why Diego is so important was highlighted by Braceli in the Hugo interview. Among so many other things, of course, Maradona, he says, was a kind of conductor, a lightning rod for the racism of Argentine society. When things weren’t going well, the powers of ‘mis-communication’, in his phrase, would invariably hit out at this villero; while in the euphoria of success, “at every moment that eternal goal is being scored, Maradona helped us take stock of things,” reminded them of who they were and what they could be.
The woman who gave birth to Maradona was able to bear such a being as beforehand she gave credence to and followed the advice written down for her by la Pierina word for word. As a midwife, you could count on la Pierina at any hour of the night or day. A digression: the midwife who helped my mother give birth to my three and a half kilos was also called la Pierina. It wasn’t the same Pierina, no, but one reminded me of the other, and the other led me to this story. It was at that high point of the diary that links one year with another, when we toast and hug one another and kiss and become good, albeit for a moment, that Dalma Salvadora Franco, la Tota, leaned over to her husband, Diego Maradona, Chitoro, and whispered in his ear:
- The next one will be a boy. I’m telling you.
- That’s what you said the first time…
- … and it was a girl.
- And the second time…
- … and it was a girl.
- And the third time …
- … it was a girl. And the fourth time, too, I said the same thing, I know.
- And it was a girl.
- But the fifth, Chirito, is going to be a boy.
- It’ll be boy, Tota, if it’s not a girl.
- I’m telling you it’s going to be a boy.
- If it’s girl i’ll love her just the same. You know that.
- It’ll be a boy. And he’ll play football according to God’s will.
- God, Tota, doesn’t have a clue about football.
- Well if He doesn’t, it’s about time He looked down and learned a thing or two.
A pitiless rain was falling on the little house in Villa Fiorito in Lanús, in the province of Buenos Aires. Yet la Pierina had promised she was going to be there at six in the evening and there she was on that fifth of January, soaked, with her umbrella inside out. This midwife kept her word. La Tota threw a towel over her and they went off to the only room where they could talk privately. It was a conversation for grown-ups, let the girls play amongst themselves.
- I want the baby to be a boy, Pierina. A boy and a footballer and good.
- A good person or a good footballer?
- Both: a good lad and a great player.
- I knew you were going to say something like that. But let’s pretend you didn’t. Let’s start afresh. Give me an answer for everything I ask you, yeah?
- You two have never been anything other than poor… you’ve got four little chislers there, do you really want to have another?
- Yes, I do.
- And your husband is fine with it?
- Yes, he wants this, too.
- Do you want a little girl or a little boy?
- A little boy.
- Then, Tota, you must look at the sun every time you have a drink of water.
- I’ll look at the sun every time I drink water. But what do I do at night?
- Look at the neck of the sun, the moon.
- I’ll look at the moon when I drink water, then.
- That’s not all. You and Chitoro, every day you must eat things that grow on trees, from wood.
- So that the newborn comes with a little stick.
La Pierina was a woman with a bit of reading behind her. That line, for example, about ‘being born with a little stick’ she knicked from some poet who would include it three years later in a book titled The Last Father. These things happen. You’ve got to admit, too, that as a midwife la Pierina was extremely flexible and assured: more than once, with pain in her heart, she helped abort little dears who would have been devoured by a life sentence of poverty. No-one has the right to condemn anyone to hunger, she would say.
Giving birth to Jesus wasn’t easy. Only a woman could do it. Giving birth to a little Che Guevara wasn’t easy either. Only a woman could. Giving birth to Diego Armando Maradona, a more than outrageously talented footballer and around 1986 one of the most famous people on the planet, wasn’t going to be easy either; not in the least.
La Pierina asked for a herbal tea – with no sugar! – and sipped it slowly, pensive.
- Tell me, Tota, are you really sure you want this nipper to be a top-class football player?
- Yeah, of course, I want him to be brilliant, the best in the villa.
- Look, if we’re going to bet on this, let’s go all out. While we’re at it, why not make him not just the best in the villa or the best in the province, the best in the country, but the best player of the century, the best player of all time.
- Grand, Pierina… while we’re at it, sure.
- I must tell you it’s not going to be easy. Having a kid like that won’t be easy. I came well-prepared, Tota. I’ve written down, month by month, what you have to do. You can’t leave anything out. If you forget one of the things or can’t get around to doing one of them, you can forget about the kid. You might get a little inside right or a holding midfielder who’s good enough on the ball, but nothing remarkable.
- No, no, I want the kid to be a number ten, the best ever.
- There you go, Tota, the best ever, in heaven and hell.
- Pierina, is the hell part really necessary?
- No, you can’t have heaven and earth without hell. They’re a package, eh.
- Alright, Pierina, tell me what to do.
La Pierina asked for a maté or two, then she frowned and started to sip away rocking in her chair while looking at the floor. Looking at the floor as if she were staring into the very heart of the future, lost in contemplation. Her face darkened suddenly like a sky on a summer’s day. When she was done with her maté she moved her chair over and sat right in front of la Tota.
Their knees were touching.
La Pierina opened her little notebook and began to read in a somewhat solemn voice:
- In order to have a son who’ll become the greatest of the great footballers, an unrivalled genius, you will have to follow, month by month, what I have here written down.
- I will, I will.
- During the first month, a raw clove of garlic first thing in the morning.
- Yes, garlic. Come what may.
- Grand, garlic, then. But why garlic?
- So that he never bites his tongue. This kind of person must always say whatever he feels, no matter if it gets under the skin of the Pharoah or His Holiness himself… But let’s continue, it’s getting late. From the second month on, you will have to sleep on the left-hand side of the bed.
- So that he’ll be a lefty, a real lefty. In the third month, you’ll have to fast for three days. Liquids only.
- But i’ll be half starved, Pierina.
- But him, too, so he’ll come into the world damn near insatiable. He’ll be hungry for goals, hungry for everything… In the fourth month, every three days you’ll have to make yourself a soup with spinach, celery, fennel, radishes, pumpkin, sweet potato, green chili, five onions… and the grass that grows at the edge of the well. A full pot of the stuff.
- What’s that for?
- I’m not sure, but be sure to do it, Tota. On the thirteenth day of the fifth month, the thirteenth, eh, you have to find a big round stone, about the size of a fist, and bury it in the middle of the nearest football pitch. This you must do alone, without anyone else watching, at three in the morning.
- Can’t my husband come with me?
- Alone, I said. And don’t tell a soul. Not even him.
The instructions for the sixth, seventh and eight months have been lost, for la Pierina, God knows why, whispered them in her ear. Women’s secrets. Spent secrets, too, as the page they were written was immediately ripped out of the notebook and set on fire.
- Can I ask you something, Pierina?
- You’re always asking me things. Go on.
- Why did you have to whisper in my ear?
- I don’t want anyone to hear us.
- But who? Sure we’re here alone, there’s no-one else around.
- Not quite, Tota, I feel as if someone were listening to us.
- Yes, I feel that right here, a third person… a writer, I don’t know, someone like that.
(Right then I felt ashamed and I blushed…)
- Make me another maté, che, la Pierina said straight away, but change the yerba first. I’m not a big fan of maté mixed with bleedin’ enema run-off.
The maté came. And then the two women sat once again face to face.
- Pierina, do you think i’ll be able to do all this?
- That’s what I was just thinking. Will you, Tota?
- I want to.
- You’ll be able.
- And in the ninth month what do I have to do?
- From the first day , in the morning you have to go about your business without your shoes. In your bare feet, feeling the earth, the spine of the world. This will help your son come into the world liberal, catholic, universal… a cosmic kite…
- A cosmic kite?
- I hear the words that one day some commentator who still doesn’t know he’ll be a commentator will use to describe him, for he’s still only about 14… Yes, barefoot, every day treading the back of the world…
- No problem there, I like going barefoot.
- What might prove a little more difficult is, in the first week of the ninth month, to thread a needle…
- Sure I do that every day.
- … thread a needle with your eyes closed. The same needle you use to sew buttons on the kids’ shirts. You can’t use some great big one, eh.
And la Tota became pregnant about three weeks after that meeting with la Pierina. She began to put on weight happily, without trying to hide it. Month after month she observed every instruction.
Until the day arrived when she finally had to thread a needle with her eyes closed. It was early when she made her first attempt, locked up in the bedroom, needle and thread in hand… she had to believe. Yet the first time she couldn’t do it. Nor at the third attempt nor at the tenth. She realised her hands were shaking. Blind and shaking, not even a year’s worth of trying would see her do it, she sighed. Three, six, seven tries more, she just couldn’t. She booted the spool and the ball flew out right through the angle of the open window. Someone outside on the street saw the ball spinning out the window and shouted what a goal! Tota heard the word goal and it was as if she’d just shaken off all the angst that had threatened to derail her. She decided to shout goal! with each new attempt to thread the needle.
She didn’t need many more tries. In fact, the very first time she felt the thread slip through the tiny little eye of the needle.
She could feel it, and she began to sob silently.
Then her husband came in and found her. He didn’t dare try stop her tears, he just bent down and kissed her swollen belly. Then he, too, began to weep softly.
Two days later, la Tota, at full term, was helping her husband, standing on his tip-toes on a chair, to change a lightbulb. Chitoro, why not use a bloody ladder… but the words were hardly out of her mouth when he dropped the bulb. She managed to break its fall with her knee; the bulb flies up again and begins to fall once more – but it doesn’t crash on the floor this time either; she cushions its fall catching it on her instep and flicks it into his bewildered hand.
- Will it still work? he asks.
- I’m sure it will, she says.
Having followed la Pierina’s instructions to the letter, she didn’t think her little feat with the lightbulb would seal, like a precocious birthmark, the peerless destiny of he who was to be born at seven in the morning of the following day, a Sunday, naturally; he who would be born for the ages.
On the 30th of October in the year 1960 anno domini, doña Tota’s waters broke at about five in the morning. On the way to the clinic that, of course, was named after Evita, she said to Pierina:
- I’m sure Dieguito is going to be a number 10, but tell me, will my son be happy?
- Your son will be condemned to bring happiness to others.
- But him, will he be happy?
- Look, we’re almost at the clinic. Finally.
- But him, will he be happy, Pierina?
- Give me your hand, watch your step.
- But him, will he…?
- Trust me, Tota, come on, quick.