(Truly, she is all things to all people.)
A little context. It is hard to overstate how beloved Diego Armando Maradona was in Naples circa 1987. He was the local soccer club’s star striker, even more brilliant at Napoli than he was for his native Argentina, and that’s saying something. From time to time, he was portrayed as “San Genarmando” in the bishop’s attire of Neapolitan patron Saint Gennaro (his iconic eighties hair went great with the crosier). Still others, “Santa Maradona” wore the crown of the Madonna dell’Arco, a local Marian devotion. But more often than not, on both sides of the Atlantic, he was simply known as “D10S”—God, in the #10 jersey.
I have a long-held theory that Beyoncé is our Maradona, which is an overgenerous use of the word “our” among other things, but hear me out. What I mean to say is that both have served as the last permissible object of unironic reverence in a time and place that otherwise disdains religiosity, and this is fascinating, and I’d like to take a moment to explore that. I’m not talking about the tiny fringe churches they’ve both inspired (la Iglesia Maradoniana and the National Church of Bey), but rather the iconography and discourse that surrounds them. I’m talking about how Maradona was quite literally more popular than Jesus (Lennon pls) while Beyoncé is routinely praised for sponsoring daily miracles:
Anyone who is reading this will know who Beyoncé is, so let me explain what I’m talking about with regard to Maradona first. When I say he is worshipped, I am not being dramatic. I mean it was not a meaningless cultural change when people stopped going to church and started going to soccer stadiums on Sundays, and I mean that his self-identification with the crucified Christ upon being denounced for drug use was more powerful than you might think. Imagine, for a minute, that you’re a destitute kid (and by kid I mean boy) from the outskirts of Buenos Aires, darker than most of the people you’ve ever seen on television (which is to say, you are maybe a light brown color), and this guy from the neighborhood over who looks like your older brother is winning the World Cup for Argentina. Of course he breaks the rules. The rules weren’t made for kids like you, you have to break them to get anywhere. He’s your hero. And in the heat of an adrenaline-fueled semifinal against the enemy, he’s your god.
Allow me to quote myself (pretty sure that makes me an academic now):
Argentina also has a particular aesthetic often superimposed on such heroes, whether specifically pibe or generally outlaw: that of the santos populares (popular saints), the secularly canonized individuals that receive devotion without the institutional approval of the Catholic Church but fully in the ritualistic tradition thereof. This phenomenon includes both deliberate secular liturgy, where there might be altars built and candles lit before folk saints like Gauchito Gil or the invention of the elaborate Iglesia Maradoniana, as well as a more casual and widespread use of religious language and imagery for secular figures. María Julia Carozzi argues that these phenomena have their roots in the expanding social inequality of neoliberal Latin America. This economic gap produces a marginalized sector in which people perceive themselves excluded from traditional institutional forms of devotion. As such, people in these marginalized groups go in search of more accessible and relatable figures whose own “marginal” status as unofficial saints, lacking institutional canonization, enables a perceived empathetic connection with their devotees.
Social inequality that produces institutional disaffection and a religious vacuum filled by popular culture: huh, what does that sound like? The understandable instinct, when discussing the hero-worship directed at Maradona and Beyoncé alike, is for religious interlocutors to push back against perceived blasphemy (exhibit A, exhibit Bey). But I’m more interested in what the ease with which religious language can be applied to these figures says about their fans. Carozzi’s theory runs on the idea that worship meets a need: marginalized people need heroes who rose from the margins; alienated people need accessible heroes. It’s the concept of “media representation” (i.e. the way people like yourself are represented in the media will inform your own self-conception) writ slightly larger. We sanctify examples of what our own salvation might look like, and that makes it feel slightly more possible.
In that sense, both Maradona and Beyoncé are positioned as saviors of the marginalized. Both are national symbols in some sense, but Maradona’s soccer career was fundamentally about poor, darker-skinned Argentine men seeing themselves in a rags-to-riches hero arc the way Beyoncé’s music career is fundamentally about black American women seeing themselves in a powerful artistic one. At their prime, they both represent the happiest possible ending for a marginalized demographic in a time of utter political disillusion and significant economic hardship.
What really strikes me is Carozzi’s assertion that popular figures can fill religious voids, too, not just political or economic ones: the idea being that once religion has been disemboweled of its institutional power and personal significance for a certain group, its trappings can be meaningfully redirected. I don’t know how true this is for Maradona’s and Beyoncé’s core fans—both poor Argentines and black Americans have thriving churches. That said, there is certainly religious disaffection among Maradona’s and Beyoncé’s wider audiences (broadly: Argentine men and urban liberal Americans). I don’t think people are exaggerating when they call watching Maradona’s goal of the century or listening to “Lemonade” a “religious experience.” I think athletic and musical beauty are genuine sites of contact with the divine, and otherwise secular people reach for religious language to describe this because it’s the most accurate tool at hand. It’s less blasphemy than incomplete praise.