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regular-article-logo Sunday, 23 June 2024

The hottest place to watch Lionel Messi play

The battered, three-story brick chalet in a quiet Buenos Aires neighbourhood once belonged to Argentine soccer hero Diego Maradona

Jack Nicas Buenos Aires Published 16.12.22, 04:08 AM
Fans at Maradona’s house in Buenos Aires on December 9, watching the World Cup match between Argentina and the Netherlands.

Fans at Maradona’s house in Buenos Aires on December 9, watching the World Cup match between Argentina and the Netherlands. Sourced by The Telegraph

Argentina had just punched its ticket to the World Cup final with a 3-0 victory over Croatia on Tuesday, but most Argentines at the party simply wanted to poke around this stranger’s house.

“When I entered, I started crying,” said Osvaldo Bonacchi, 52, an air-conditioner repairman, who was starting to tear up again on the spiral staircase leading to the carpeted attic. He had lived nearby for 15 years, and always wondered what it was like inside. “To be here is a dream,” he said.

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The battered, three-story brick chalet in a quiet Buenos Aires neighbourhood once belonged to the Argentine soccer hero Diego Maradona, and in this World Cup, it has become one of the hottest places in Argentina to watch a match.

A local entrepreneur bought the house last month and has opened the doors for the past several games, paying for drinks and more than 1,000 pounds of meat for hundreds of friends, neighbours and strangers crowded around Maradona’s backyard pool to cheer on the national team.

“We started letting people in, and then they collapsed and started crying,” the house’s new owner, Ariel Fernando García, 47, said of the first party. “For me, he was an extraterrestrial,” he said of Maradona. “No man has given more joy to Argentines.”

Maradona died of a heart attack in 2020 at age 60 but remains one of Argentina’s biggest figures. His story of a poor Buenos Aires boy rising to become one of history’s greatest football players and the leader of Argentina’s 1986 team of World Cup champions has made him a sort of deity in this nation of 46 million.

The Church of Maradona is a legally recognised religion in Argentina, now entering its 25th year, that claims tens of thousands of members with branches around the world. Some Google searches will return a little box of questions that other people searched, starting with: “Is Diego Maradona a God?”

So on Tuesday, as hundreds of people streamed into Maradona’s former house, with its stained-glass windows and crystal chandeliers, there was an air of faith, devotion and sanctity, mixed with the scent of two large slabs of beef cooking on a spit out back.

“You can really feel him in here,” said Roxana Orio, a 35-year-old tattoo artist with Maradona’s No. 10 — the number on his shirt in his playing days — engraved on her left ankle, as she toured the house with her 8-year-old daughter.

There was the large backyard with synthetic grass where Maradona would practise, the balcony where Maradona greeted fans on the street after the 1986 World Cup win, and the small bedroom, now empty, where Maradona once slept.

They ventured on to the garage where there was an old tube television. A friend of the new owner said it had once been in Maradona’s bedroom. People took photos.

Up a narrow staircase, there was a neglected bathroom with a bidet and a broken toilet, in the baby blue of Argentina’s national team, and then a storage room with a hole in the ceiling and a box of old children’s books and schoolwork. One notebook appeared to belong to one of Maradona’s daughters. “I need to take a photo of this relic,” Orio said.

Maradona bought the house in the early 1980s, mainly as a gift for his parents, but he lived there at various times over several decades, according to local news reports and García, who spoke to the Maradona family about the home’s history during the purchase. (It is one of several homes that Maradona owned in Buenos Aires.)

While the Maradona family lived there, García grew up nearby. He said he tried to peek inside the house every chance he had, and celebrated outside it in 1986 when Argentina won the World Cup, and in 1990 when they made the finals.

Then, earlier this year, he saw a news article that said the house had been on the market for a year and, if it didn’t sell in a week, would be sold to a developer who planned to demolish it and build a condo tower in its place.

García called the real estate agent who had listed the house and agreed to buy it without an inspection. To secure it, he borrowed $50,000 in $100 bills from a friend (Argentina real estate deals are often completed in hard US currency because of the Argentine peso’s volatility) for the down payment. The final price was $900,000.

“It’s just one more crazy thing my husband does,” said his wife, Marcela Vozza, standing on a crowded balcony above a sea of revellers on the street following Tuesday’s victory.

García has followed a bumpy route to owning an Argentine legend’s home. He served two years in prison from 2002 to 2004 in connection with an assault that he said he carried out to protect a family member.

In prison, he finished his law degree, and since being released, has become a prolific businessman, buying and selling restaurants, buildings and other businesses. Today he runs a pharmaceutical maker, a food company and a firm that manufactures cheap wires and cables.

After purchasing Maradona’s house, García’s first idea was to turn it into a sort of museum. But then he got another idea when his family first saw it three weeks ago, after he received the keys.

García said his son had been recovering from a knife attack at a nightclub, and for the first time since the injury, he lit up when he entered the house. García immediately decided he would open the house for the matches. “It started with that smile,” he said of his son.

At first, it was family and friends, but eventually the parties expanded as people invited others. By the time Argentina played Poland there were roughly 700 people, he said. He hired caterers to cook beef, pork, gizzards and Argentina’s famed “choripan” sandwiches, made with chorizo. He served soda and water — but no alcohol.

“I’m convinced there are signs Maradona chose me so that the house is about happiness — like what he transmitted on the field,” García said. He plans to open the house again for Argentina’s World Cup final versus France on Sunday.

On Tuesday, the atmosphere quickly turned from tense to jubilant as Argentina’s goals piled up. A percussion band with a brass section pumped out songs written for Argentina’s World Cup team. Children shot blue silly string into the crowd. And, while the party was sober, plenty of grown adults — including García’s mother-in-law — ended up in the pool with their clothes on.

At the start of the second half, Argentina led 2-0, but some fans were still cautious. “The last time we were 2-0, things escalated quickly,” said Gaston Marano, a consultant, his eyes not leaving the screen, referring to Argentina’s quarterfinal match last week against the Netherlands that went to penalty kicks.

Moments later, Argentina’s star, Lionel Messi, wove around a defender and delivered a wizardly assist for the third goal.

“Now I can relax,” Marano said. More bodies went into the pool. The celebration moved into the pool.

(Jack Nicas wrote a part of this article from Diego Maradona’s old bedroom)

(New York Times News Service)

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