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Barcelona have no business at money-spinning Maradona tribute

2:14 PM IST 14/12/21
Diego Maradona tribute Naples
Tuesday's friendly in Saudi Arabia will feature the Blaugrana, who never made any great effort to remember Maradona while he was still alive

On Monday, with their Champions League disappointment still fresh in the mind, Barcelona were handed another stiff European challenge.

The Catalans will have to fight past Napoli for the right to advance in the Europa League, thus avoiding an indecently early end to the club's continental ventures in 2021-22.

The timing of the draw, moreover, could not have been more appropriate; barely 24 hours after, they will be lining up in Saudi Arabia in a match that by rights should be showcasing the talents of their Europa League opponents.

When discussing the career of Diego Armando Maradona, a few teams immediately come to mind: boyhood club Argentinos Juniors; his beloved Boca Juniors; Napoli, where he became a local legend; and, of course, Argentina, thanks to his exploits in the 1986 and 1990 World Cups.

The late star also retained a soft spot in his heart for Newell's Old Boys, whom he represented for a short spell in the 1990s, while fans and players alike at his final employers Gimnasia revelled in his exploits on the bench up to the moment of his passing in November 2020.

Barcelona, however, would not rank highly among that list of memorable ex-clubs. For that reason, it is rather jarring to see Xavi's men take on Boca in Tuesday's Maradona Cup, a money-spinning friendly that does less to remember the great man than to expose the commercial manoeuvrings which he often fought against.

While he was alive, the Catalans certainly did not make any great efforts to remember Diego's fiery, injury-interrupted yet occasionally spectacular two-year spell at Camp Nou.

The man himself said as much to Marca in 2018 when he predicted with laudable prescience Lionel Messi's own acrimonious exit.

“Barcelona forget their idols very quickly,” the then-Dorados coach claimed. “Don't do the same [with Messi] as they did with me, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Romario, with [Luis] Figo.

“Just like that I can name a load of players who were kicked out of Barcelona because of jealousy. The fans are the ones who end up losing.”

On another occasion he remarked to Clarin: “I knew that [Messi at Barca] would end poorly and I thought Leo would leave.

“It happened to me too. Barcelona is not an easy club and he has been there for a long time and was not treated as he deserved.”

It is surely no coincidence that when Messi netted for Barca following Diego's death, the shirt he revealed belonged not to his own club, but Newell's: a signal not just of his own allegiances, but also that his memories of his former Argentina coach as a player belonged back in Rosario rather than his adopted home in Europe.

While clubs such as Boca, Napoli and Argentinos have carefully cultivated Maradona's hero status on an institutional level – the latter two's stadiums carry his name, while during his lifetime he was a regular visitor to Boca's La Bombonera home and enjoyed his own private box at the ground – Barca have never embraced the Argentine in the same manner, a feeling that was largely mutual.

What will be wholly welcome from the Catalans' perspective, of course, is the prize for travelling to the Middle East.

According to Mundo Deportivo, Barca will pick up a cool €2 million (£1.7m/$2.25m) for taking part in the Maradona Cup, a fee which will not exactly end their financial worries overnight but will nevertheless be greeted with no little joy in the Camp Nou boardroom.

Boca are expected to receive a similar sum for their participation, a small fortune in the local context due to the weakness of Argentina's economy and currency.

Napoli, meanwhile, are said to have priced themselves out of contention by requesting more than double the fee of their prospective Spanish opponents.

Irrepressible as always, Partenopei president Aurelio De Laurentiis is looking into holding his own Maradona Cup next year with matches against the Argentina national team and another opponent.

“I'd like it to be May 24, my birthday,” he told reporters in Italy.

If all this, added to the bizarre plan to hold a friendly between European and South American teams in Riyadh – Dubai, where he lived for several years as a coach and ambassador for football in the United Arab Emirates, would have been a more appropriate choice – sounds just a little unsavoury, it is very much in keeping with the bitter, ugly fall-out from Maradona's death that has taken place behind the moving public scenes of murals, grief and celebration.

As reported by Infobae, Matias Morla, Diego's lawyer at the time of passing, moved immediately to trademark for himself the name and image of his former client, a gambit that for the past year has been disputed in the courts by the star's children, who contend that the businessman has been illicitly profiting from the rights.

Injunctions, orders, lawsuits and counter-suits have been flying almost constantly between the two camps. Elsewhere in the courts, no fewer than seven health professionals who treated Maradona in his final days, including lead physician Leopoldo Luque, are being formally investigated on manslaughter charges related to alleged neglect and malpractice towards the ex-player prior to his death.

Tuesday's trumped-up friendly might be a slightly more fitting stage than the Buenos Aires judicial system for an homage to Maradona, but it marks the continuation of a sad trend: the exploitation of the name of one of the greatest players ever to set foot on a football pitch, which started while he was still a young man ready to conquer the world and has only increased with his tragic passing.