In a now vanished age, May 2010, I went to the movies on a Saturday evening in Recoleta, Buenos Aires. The upmarket Cine Village multiplex attracted an audience of well-heeled Portenos (locals of the city) and resident diplomats such as me.

Before the main feature, a cheesy commercial for a local insurance company was screened. Extraordinarily, the entire audience cheered, whistled, and hollered. Not for the product but at the appearance onscreen of its endorser, football maestro Diego Maradona, who died this week in the same city, his birthplace.

But the distance between that cinema complex and its affluent patrons and the villa miseria (shantytown) where Maradona was born in 1960 was — in terms of wealth and inequality — about as far as the divide between Sandton and Alexandra.

Maradona grew up with a photograph of the populist power couple of Juan and Evita Perón in his shack, and in later life embraced all causes of the Left and the class enemies of that cinema audience. He managed to both embody the contradictions of his complex country and unite its deeply divided people. In victory and defeat.

It was on his team’s return from the disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign that another extraordinary feature of the paradoxes of both Maradona and his country were on full display.

On the one hand, Maradona embodied the past glory of Argentine football. He, single-handedly, defeated the English in their famed 1986 quarterfinal encounter, with the notorious “Hand of God” for one goal. And in the next one — minutes later — he dribbled past five English players in a 60m run to score one of the most amazing goals of all time. Beating the English, who had defeated the Argentinians on the real battlefields of the Falkland Islands just four years before, added to the accomplishment. He was a hyper-nationalist — the most famous and infamous (for his drug addiction and dissolute living) Argentine in the world.

On the other hand, his prowess as a genius player never translated into any accomplishment as national coach. In SA in 2010, despite the presence of Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez, his team was drilled out of the tournament 4-1 by the methodical Germans in the quarterfinals.

Yet after this calamitous defeat, on the team’s return to Ezeiza airport, his arrival was met by over 20,000 fans who mobbed the pint-sized Maradona, cheering him as a hero. This led a waspish reporter to note: “They were there to thank him for his disastrous performance.”

It was another Buenos Aires native, John Carlin, so well known here for his remarkable account of Nelson Mandela and the 1995 winning Springbok campaign, filmed as Invictus, who controversially etched the significance of Maradona as country metaphor.

Carlin decided that Maradona’s acclaim in defeat and his embrace of the ruling Peronist party and its president pointed to a wider problem. And so he penned an article a few months later that caused no end of local controversy. But loosely translated it applies not only to a moment and country frozen in time but has far wider application, even here at home.

Among his nuggets: “The failure of Maradona in the World Cup mirrors the failure of Argentina as a country … There is a lack of discipline and humility in planning and a waste of available resources [a reference to Maradona’s odd team selection, which benched some of the talented players]. Only in the Maradonean system illusion shines. When out of fantasy, coaches or presidents or systems with populist, authoritarian, and antidemocratic features are chosen, which are not well grounded in reality, the inevitable outcome is failure.”

Almost on cue, a leader of the Peronist party, former president Nestor Kirchner, telephoned Maradona shortly after his return from SA to “congratulate” him on the World Cup campaign.

Here at home finance minister Tito Mboweni keeps signaling, usually on Twitter, that unless SA reforms its profligate ways it risks going in the same economically ruinous direction as Argentina, which holds the record for the highest number of sovereign credit defaults in the world.

Yet, as Maradona’s football brilliance demonstrates, beyond star power successful countries need discipline, long-term plans, sustainable policymaking and rigorous implementation. This is not the stuff of legends and random sprinkling of stardust on prodigies of outsize talent. Rather, as in the title of a biography on Trevor Manuel, our last successful finance minister, it is about “choice, not fate”.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

Featured in The Sunday Times