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In Diego Maradona’s neighborhood

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

One you can, starts in a small school with a sunny courtyard that has flowering trees and involves an orange. Maradona attended elementary school in the poor, working-class city of Villa Fiorito, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

According to neighborhood tradition, he would walk home from school, kicking and playing with the orange he was given for dessert at school as if it were a soccer ball, an object he was already learning to master.

“That’s the famous story,” Cristian Bustos, 44, a lifelong Fiorito resident, said outside the school gate.

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

Maradona’s soccer magic as a child amazed coaches.

He moved from Villa Fiorito and from the small white house he shared with his parents and five siblings when he was a teenager. He left for the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Paternal, where he played for Argentina Juniors, before moving on to Boca Juniors in the same city and later catapulting himself onto the international scene.

But the spirit of the feisty, controversial and beloved superstar continues to reverberate in Fiorito, even two years after his death at the age of 60 from heart failure and pulmonary edema. Her image is etched into the leathery skin of the community.

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

“I think that everyone in the neighborhood has something of Maradona,” said Bustos, who works at the Fiorito Cultural Center. “Those of us who were born in Fiorito, those of us who struggle to get ahead, understand what it is to fight against power.”

Fiorito has changed since Maradona worked on that orange in his streets. There is electricity, running water, and modest beautification projects. A corner where neighbors dumped trash is now a grassy plaza, and the dirt court where Maradona honed his skills is lined with houses.

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Maradona murals inside the clubhouse of Estrellas Unidas [Natalie Alcoba/ Al Jazeera]

The school where he got his oranges has been remodeled and a mural of a young Maradona adorns its inner courtyard.

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“It was always important that this was Maradona’s school,” said Laura Fleitas, 46, who has worked at the school since 1998.

“Her grandmother and her godmother worked here. His grandmother was a cook. They were well known in the neighborhood.”

Claudio “Tati” Villarruel, 48, also heard the stories passed down to him by his father, who co-founded Estrellas Unidas, the Fiorito soccer club where Maradona first played as a youth. It was then known as Red Stars.

Initially a small neighborhood club that operated out of residents’ kitchen tables, it later formalized its operations with a clubhouse not far from where Maradona lived.

Claudio ‘Tati’ Villarruel outside the clubhouse of Estrellas Unidas, the team from the Villa Fiorito neighborhood where Maradona played before stardom [Natalie Alcoba/ Al Jazeera]

Villarruel’s uncle, Osvaldo, recently recalled how a five or six-year-old Maradona would literally dance around him and the other older children with a soccer ball, much to his chagrin. Some days they sent him packing, laughed Villarruel, who grew up five blocks from Maradona’s original home and is now secretary general of Estrellas Unidas.

The club hosted a barbecue and party on October 30 to commemorate Maradona’s birthday, drawing musicians, artists, family members and former teammates to the clubhouse, which is decorated with images of Maradona.

The men of Maradona’s time hugged each other and reminisced about their own glory days on the pitch and how time flies. Then, everyone turned to the street to inaugurate a new sign with the name of Maradona.

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For many here, it wasn’t just Maradona’s greatness on the pitch, but his defiance off it that they loved. He attacked US imperialism, the riches of the Vatican and lamented the growing impoverishment of Argentines.

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

“I couldn’t imagine this World Cup without Diego because Diego gave him that share of enthusiasm and pride,” said Villarruel.

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“We still miss him for all the things he could be saying. He was never silent. And despite everything that happened with the addiction, that doesn’t change anything for us because he’s not the only one, and as he said: you can’t stain the ball.”

For all the things that have changed in Fiorito, many have stayed the same. The area where Maradona lived now has a sewage system, but every other section still doesn’t. Fiorito continues to struggle under crushing poverty.

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

Maradona’s childhood home, which the Argentine government named a site of historical importance last year, has become something of a sanctuary for the star. Fans leave flags and flowers outside, though the house is not open to the public and is in disrepair. Maradona’s mother is said to have given the property to a woman he knew, and that woman’s son now lives there.

Bustos laments that more has not been done to preserve the historic significance of the house and other connections Fiorito has with Maradona, which he believes could be an economic engine for locals.

While residents revel in the pride that comes with living on Maradona’s original grounds, he said they are also used to photos that make no real difference.

“We know it because we lived it,” Bustos said. “We have been lied to so many times already. He talks about why we fight against the powerful and stuff like that, what Diego did and what I think a lot of people adopted.”

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Bustos’ own focus has been to generate more creative outlets for his community. He has been working with local muralists on projects that add color to the streets.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, they created an “open sky gallery” of murals in houses that in some cases were dedicated to people who had succumbed to the disease. “Converting pain into a color,” she said in Spanish, which translates to “turning pain into something colorful.”

The exterior of Estrellas Unidas, the football club where Maradona played for the first time in Villa Fiorito [Natalie Alcoba/ Al Jazeera]

Although Maradona left Fiorito a long time ago, the kinship he forged with those of us who live here remains.

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“I loved that he was fighting everyone,” Bustos said. “And that air of superiority, I think all of us at Fiorito have a touch of that too. Everyone wanted a piece of Maradona, not just Fiorito. You regret how it all ended. Many said that he lived the life he wanted, but I don’t think he was properly cared for either.”

Maradona left, but the people of Villa Fiorito continue to live with him. Gustavo Horacio Insaurralde, 39, works alongside an imposing representation of Maradona seated on a painted court at the back of a city building.

He works five days a week as a cartonero, roaming the streets of Buenos Aires in search of recyclable material that he will later sell. He keeps giant sacks with his daily booty in front of the Maradona mural. Each of those cardboard-filled bags represents “the bread that I take home for my family,” he said.

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

Insaurralde reflected on the joy that Maradona brought to the people. He tried to pay his respects after his death, joining the masses that lined up to view his coffin at Argentina’s presidential palace, but skirmishes that broke out between fans and authorities meant he never He could enter.

“Diego was a magician,” Insaurralde said. “Maybe as a person he was not what we expected. There are things that he did for which we punish the boys, and young people must be taught that they are useless. But the reality is that he did magic with the ball. He held the shirt up high.”

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