How death of Diego Maradona helped spark a backlash against Argentina’s rugby team

These should have been heady days for Argentine rugby. A first-ever victory over the mighty All Blacks had elevated the sport’s profile back home, with captain Pablo Matera assuming national hero status.

Argentina captain Pablo Matera stands with his team-mates as they watch the New Zealand players perform the Haka.
Argentina captain Pablo Matera stands with his team-mates as they watch the New Zealand players perform the Haka.

But two weeks on from that victory in Sydney and the reputation of Los Pumas is in tatters. Matera has been sacked as skipper and is among three players suspended following a race row over historic social media posts.

Matera, lock Guido Petti and hooker Santiago Socino will miss the Tri-Nations match against Australia on Saturday.

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The discovery of the offensive tweets came after criticism in Argentina for the low-key way the rugby side responded to the death of Diego Maradona.

The Pumas became the first Argentine team to play since the passing of the footballing great when they faced New Zealand again last Saturday.

Their opponents paid their respects to Maradona before the match when an All Blacks shirt with ‘Maradona 10’ written on the back was laid on the field by New Zealand captain Sam Cane.

The Argentina players wore black armbands but it was their only gesture.

That tribute contrasted poorly with that of the New Zealanders and sparked a backlash back home that forced the Argentine squad to make a public apology on Monday, before the controversial social media posts emerged.

New Zealand captain Sam Cane lays down a No 10 jersey in memory of Diego Maradona prior to the 2020 Tri-Nations match against Argentina. Picture: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Matera said: “The tribute we chose to pay Diego caused pain and disappointment in many people and we wanted to (say) that in no way was that our intention.

“Diego was an extremely important person for us, he always supported us. For Argentine athletes, Diego Maradona is the greatest thing there is and he marked us all.”

The apology failed to cut much ice in the grief-stricken nation and the rugby players were further pilloried when it was suggested they had used what looked like electrical tape to make the black armbands.

Amid this fevered atmosphere, the racist and xenophobic social media posts emerged. Dating from 2011 to 2013, they included disparaging comments about Black people and Bolivians and Paraguayans.

The death of Diego Maradona provoked an outpouring of grief in Argentina. Picture: David Cannon/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive

The players apologised but were stood down for the Australia game.

Back home, there is talk of boycotting the rugby team.

“I am never going to watch a game of theirs again,” said Nery Pumpido, Argentina’s World Cup-winning goalkeeper who played alongside Maradona in the great 1986 side.

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