In the 1980s, Diego Maradona, currently lying in state at the presidential mansion in Buenos Aires, smiled down from hundreds of billboards. He was the most popular man in the world’s most popular sport. So, although controversies and some unctuous advisors compromised Maradona’s huge commercial potential, a lot of brands still wanted to be associated with the charismatic genius or the teams that he played for. With their logos on Maradona’s proud chest or his magical feet, these companies became known around the world.
In the India of the 1980s, who knew Buitoni? How many even knew pasta? Then Maradona signed up for Napoli, who were sponsored by the Italian pasta maker. We saw pictures of Maradona in Indian sports magazines and that’s where we learnt of Buitoni.
No brand, however, is as strongly connected to the legend of Maradona as Le Coq Sportif. It was the make Maradona and the Argentinian team wore during his greatest achievement – the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. All these years later, the image of Maradona lifting the gold trophy wearing the blue and white Argentina shirt is still vivid in memory. And so is the Le Coq Sportif logo that a lot of young Indians drew with a sketch pen on their own clothes.
There is an amusing story related to Argentina’s Mexico 1986 jersey. As is the norm, teams have two uniforms at tournaments, one light and one dark, to avoid a clash of colours with the opposition team. In addition to their traditional sky blue and white vertical stripe, Argentina had a dark blue jersey as well. The team wore it for their famous quarterfinal against England, during which Maradona scored the Hand of God goal as well as a sublime solo just four minutes later. But Maradona writes in his book ‘Touched by God: How We Won the Mexico 86 World Cup’, that the team almost did not have the alternative shirts ready in time for the game.
“Two seamstresses at the training camp sewed them on (the national team emblem and the player numbers on the back of the shirts),” he writes. Moreover, the numbers on the shirts, painted in silver, left shiny flecks on the arms and faces of players.
Puma was another Maradona staple. Almost throughout his career he wore their cleats. The model was Puma King. It was also what Pele wore during his career highpoint, the 1970 World Cup. It is believed that just before kickoff of the high-profile final between Brazil and Italy, Pele deliberately stopped the referee and tied his shoelaces, giving the shoe precious airtime on a global telecast.
Puma eventually launched a shoe dedicated to Maradona, calling it the King Maradona Super. One of the company’s early advertisements shows a young Maradona saying, ‘Puma es mi major amigo’. Puma is my best friend. It indeed was. After a break of a few years, Puma and Maradona reportedly signed a lifetime deal. Till the end, Maradona was often seen wearing Puma gear. Slow and depressingly diminished in his final years, his Puma shirts were one last reminder of his vibrant days.
Before aerated drinks became notorious for their ill effects on health, a major cola contract was almost as coveted by athletes as a juicy sneaker deal. Maradona had one with the biggest of them all, Coca Cola. ‘Un Coca Cola pour un sourire’. A Coca Cola for a smile, he says in one poster.
After his inspirational performances for Argentina in the 1986 World Cup, and then for Napoli in the Serie A, Maradona was commanding premium fees. Napoli reportedly paid him $3 million in salary and he earned $8-10 million in endorsements. Among his fleet of cars was a rare, black Ferrari Testarossa.
Many of Maradona’s seminal contracts were negotiated by Jorge Cyterszpiler, Maradona’s childhood friend and first agent. He oversaw Maradona’s move to Barcelona from Boca Juniors for a then world record of about $8 million, as well as his transfer to Napoli for almost $10.5 million.
In an article on ringer.com, Brian Phillips writes that Cyterszpiler transformed the global business of soccer. At a time when corrupt football administrators were raking in the money and the players were seen as mere mules, Cyterszpiler channelized some of the wealth Maradona’s way.
“He consolidated Maradona’s business interests in a separate corporation, Maradona Productions, registered in Liechtenstein to dodge taxes,” Phillips writes. “He made sure Diego controlled his own image rights. Cyterszpiler got Maradona deals hawking Puma, Coca-Cola, toothbrushes, soap. He got him his own line of dolls.”
But such was Maradona’s lifestyle and nature that he still seemed to be living beyond his means. The situation worsened when he stopped playing. Multiple lovers and illegitimate children, along with a tax bill of about $50 million from Italian authorities meant that Maradona’s post-retirement years were spent dealing with lawsuits and huge expenses. He survived thanks to his enormous stature and goodwill in Argentina and patronage of the rich and powerful in the UAE or South America, including Fidel Castro. And he made some money wherever it was possible.
About ten years ago, Maradona came to India to promote the Kerala businessman Boby Chemmanur’s jewellery brand. He wore a chatta and mundu and shot a tacky ad in which he and Chemmanur head the ball towards each other. One did not know whether to laugh or cry, as with nearly everything Diego Maradona did.