From the back of a van, a cameraman was taking footage of a small town in the Ukrainian countryside. The crew in the vehicle, formed of South American journalists, was heading down the road to Lviv, one of the many cities attacked by the Russian army, when two police cars suddenly appeared and asked them to stop.
The authorities requested passports and other documents, and also collected their cameras, notebooks and mobile phones. From there, the men were taken to the police station, where communication was far from easy.
Nor did it help that Juan Zamudio, the man filming, had a Russian stamp in his passport. He’d been to Russia for the 2018 World Cup won by France in the country governed by Vladimir Putin, now responsible for the bombings and attacks that had devastated Ukrainian territory during the previous months.
“The language barrier was a huge problem. Sometimes they just suspected that we may be recording images to send information to Russia or something. That had happened before. But when they realised that we were Argentinians, they started to say something and I only understood a couple of words: “Maradona and Messi”, says Zamudio, a 36-year-old working for Telefe.
“That’s when, to ease the situation a little bit, I showed the tattoo I have of Maradona [on the calf]. Luckily, our treatment completely changed from then on.”
Alongside Zamudio was Chilean reporter Daniel Matamala, who showed the Ukrainian officers a photo of himself with Lionel Messi.
The confirmation – or the impression dismissed by the authorities – that the journalists were not working for Russia allowed them to retrieve their documents and equipment and head on towards Lviv. Another goal from Messi and Maradona.
“I’ve loved Diego since I was a child and he has always been my idol,” says Zamudio, a Boca Juniors fan, the club where Maradona won his only title in Argentina, in 1981, and where he retired from the game in 1997.
This hero worship can not only be seen on his skin, but also in the Instagram account he manages under the name of ‘Diego de mi vida’. The page gathers photos and videos of Argentina’s eternal number 10, who died in November 2020, at age 60.
Juan Zamudio had the tattoo done at the age of 15 and while Nowadays the drawing is worn, it will probably stay that way as a reminder of the day that Maradona rescued him from trouble during the war.
“I did it over 20 years ago, so it’s kind of shabby. But I’m not going to retouch it either”, laughs the cameraman, sent to Eastern Europe to cover the conflict and already back (and safe) in his country.
Zamudio’s story is curious, but not new. At least not for the Maradoniana Church, founded in 2001 as a worship movement towards the Argentinian deity.
Hernán Amaz, the founder of the church, says that in the last two decades he has received similar testimonies to that of the cameraman in Ukraine.
He tells the story of another journalist covering the Iraq War and needed to go through border control in the city of Baghdad to head to the north of the country. The soldiers responsible for checking the documents were not convinced to allow him to pass until they saw a photo of Maradona in the reporter’s wallet.
With enthusiasm, they repeated among themselves: “Maradona! Maradona!” waving him through to continu on his way.
“Football achieves these things, these miracles. It was a Maradonian miracle,” said Hernán.
Diego Armando Maradona died in 2020 after suffering a cardiac arrest. His legacy, however, is still alive. In memories, tattoos and border controls during wars.
Bruno Rodrigues is a Brazilian journalist who runs Futebolcafe which aims to highlight football writing from across the world for a South American audience.