The resurrection of Diego Maradona

In the late afternoon of June 30 1994, the president of the Argentine Football Association, Julio Grondona, watched his national team train at the Dallas Cotton Bowl Stadium before their World Cup tie against Bulgaria. Then, as he left the stadium, he took a call on his mobile, and heard confirmation of a development that was to convulse the first World Cup staged in the US: a post-match drugs test on Argentina’s team captain Diego ­Maradona, conducted five days earlier, had returned a positive reading. The world’s greatest footballer faced disgrace and inevitable expulsion from the sport’s greatest tournament.

Just a week earlier Maradona had been considered the undisputed star of the World Cup, with a global following that stretched from Buenos Aires to Baghdad. The competition was his fourth. His second World Cup, in Mexico in 1986, will be remembered by most for the greatest goal ever scored in the history of football rather than for the notorious, cheating “hand of God” goal against England. His career had included high-profile spells with clubs in Argentina, Italy and Spain and his presence at the 1994 competition in the US had been brokered by Sepp Blatter, then general secretary of Fifa, with an eye firmly on the competition’s commercial success. Not only would Maradona ensure a huge audience but he would also help to plant the seeds of soccer’s popularity in America’s collective consciousness.

But the positive drug test brought back into focus the darker side of Maradona, a genius with the ball who had suffered a series of spectacular personal setbacks thanks to his taste for wild living and, in particular, cocaine. Sports journalists had to put aside their admiration for his sublime ­footballing skills in order to condemn him as a disgrace to the game.

Quite what will happen to Maradona in this summer’s World Cup in South Africa is anyone’s guess, but his return to international football as Argentina’s national coach has brought him once again into the spotlight, marking him out as one of the few individuals who may hold the key to the ­success or failure of the tournament.

In Argentina, Maradona remains a legend and the ­country’s most famous export, surpassing any writer, artist or politician in his ability to fuel mass interest across frontiers. The nation’s identification with El Diego has been fed by the populist ­centre-left Peronist government, which has spent most of the past decade encouraging his return to ­prominence following his last drug-induced collapse.

In January 2000, Maradona, who took cocaine for the first time in the early 1980s, when he was an FC Barcelona player, came close to death, having until then repeatedly proved ­himself remarkably resilient in the face of self-abuse. Grossly overweight and suffering from a heart condition inherited from his father, he collapsed while on holiday in the ­Uruguayan resort of Punta Del Este. His friend, the then-Argentine president Carlos Menem, put it down to a “stress attack”. But, the Uruguayan police revealed, analysis of Maradona’s blood and urine pointed to “excessive consumption of cocaine”.

Within days, Maradona had flown to Havana, courtesy of another friend, the Cuban president Fidel Castro. Photographs show the player, his shock of hair dyed orange, a tattoo of Che Guevara on his flabby arm and a heart monitor stretched around his ample girth, looking like an inflatable Harpo Marx. During his early days in Havana, Maradona punched the windscreen of a reporter’s car. None of this seemed to worry Castro, who found ways of making political capital out of his presence on the island. The local media portrayed him as a leader of the people, in contrast to the Goliath of the North (the US), which had refused Maradona a visa since his expulsion from the 1994 World Cup.

As the footballing icon of a football-mad nation, ­Maradona had long had political connections at the top level. On October 20 1976, seven months after a military junta had seized power in Argentina, and 10 days short of his 16th birthday, the child prodigy from a shanty town became the youngest player in footballing history to play in ­Argentina’s competitive premier league. He was judged too young to play in the national squad when, two years later, the World Cup was hosted in Argentina. But in 1979, Maradona led his ­country to the World Youth Championship in Tokyo, an event that was quickly exploited by the junta to divert popular attention from its bloody human rights record.

After the fall of the military in 1982, with his country’s defeat in the Falklands conflict echoed in a similar humiliation at the World Cup in Spain (Maradona was shown the red card before his team was eliminated by Brazil), Maradona left Argentina to play first at FC Barcelona and then Napoli. But he remained a hugely popular figure back home and one with whom a succession of Argentine civilian governments bent over backwards to ingratiate themselves.

In 1986, President Raul Alfonsin was by Maradona’s side on the legendary balcony of the Casa Rosada as he held aloft the World Cup, which Argentina had won in Mexico. ­Maradona later became a close friend of President Carlos Menem who led his country through a controversial period of boom and bust, somewhat analogous to Maradona’s own helter­skelter lifestyle. Menem and Maradona, both from humble backgrounds, intermingled their devotion to the cause of the ­populist General Peron and the Virgin Mary with their love for football, fast cars and women.

But the friendship came under strain in 1990 when ­Maradona returned from playing in Italy, where he had mixed with drug dealers and the mafia in Naples. When he was arrested for cocaine possession following a police raid on his Buenos Aires flat Maradona reacted by accusing the government of abandoning him in his time of need and throwing him to the wolves. Dragged before a judge, he declared ­defiantly: “Madam Judge, the only thing that I’ve dealt with in my life is football for my country and I can swear that on the life of my daughters.”

Maradona subsequently struggled to return to international football, but he remained a popular figure at home, his personal failings more easily forgiven than the incompetence of a succession of Argentine presidents as the country spiralled into the worst economic crisis of its history during the 1990s.

In 2000, at the start of millennium, a Fifa internet poll of soccer fans around the world voted him the best player of the 20th century. In his autobiography Yo Soy El Diego, ­published the same year, Maradona admitted to his drug addiction but claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy by unnamed corrupt football officials and politicians. “I am the voice of those who have no voice,” he wrote, “the voice of many people who feel represented by me because I always have a microphone in front of me while they’ll never get the chance to have one in their godforsaken lives.”

Within a year, in 2001, Maradona was honoured in a ­globally televised testimonial in Buenos Aires between an Argentine XI and a Rest of the World XI. The encounter, billed as his definitive farewell appearance on the pitch, was watched by millions around the world and drew a fanatical domestic audience to the terraces of La Bombonera, the ­stadium of Boca Juniors, Maradona’s favourite club, where he had first starred as a teenager.

Beyond the stadium, a crisis of confidence in the government’s ability to tackle a deepening recession provoked a run on deposits, which in turn led to the highly unpopular ­corralito, an official ban on the withdrawal of savings. Riots broke out around the country as Argentina succumbed to the biggest sovereign debt default in history ($100bn), with the country’s reputation sinking further as a result of hyperinflation and rising unemployment.

In the midst of the crisis, Maradona survived as one of the few institutional figures that Argentines retained faith in, and for a brief moment in 2001, the media even speculated on the possibility of him standing for the vice-presidency of the nation on a joint ticket with his old friend, the former president Carlos Menem, who had escaped being sent to jail on corruption charges.

The idea floundered largely due to the player’s lack of ­interest in political wheeler-dealing. Nevertheless, his ties to anti-US populist politicians at home and across South ­America helped him to make his latest comeback. Even with his playing glory days behind him, Maradona’s talismanic quality was seized on as the continent experienced a new wave of nationalist sentiment following the election of the Peronist Néstor Kirchner in Argentina in May 2003.

In 2004, Maradona and his long-suffering wife, Claudia Villafane, divorced after proceedings during which he admitted being the father of the Italian-born Diego Sinagra. ­Maradona left the family home and moved to the expanding upmarket neighbourhood of Ezeiza close to the national football squad’s training quarters. The area was a Peronist ­fiefdom and it was rumoured that Maradona’s house purchase had been facilitated by the local mayor, Alejandro Granados, whose son owned a local football club – flush with funds – and other business interests.

A year later, in November 2005, Maradona led a colourful trainload of protesters to the coastal town of Mar del Plata to join a demonstration against a Latin America-US summit being held there. The train was temporarily renamed the Alba Express in reference to the “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas”, a regional trade pact being promoted by Castro and the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. When Chávez took to the podium before a 40,000-strong audience at a nearby stadium, Maradona was at his side.

By then Maradona had returned to his old club Boca ­Juniors to serve for a year as a sports vice-president. His decision to hire Alfio Basile as the new club coach, while himself maintaining a close relationship with the players, resulted in a marked improvement in the first team’s ­performance. Boca went on to win the Argentine league championship and the Copa and Recopa Sudamericana, a success story that led to Basile becoming coach of the national team, and to ­Maradona exercising renewed influence at the highest level of ­Argentine football.

Months later, in the summer of 2006, hopes of Argentina repeating their World Cup success of 1978 and 1986 were dashed when they were beaten 2-4 by Germany in a tense quarter-final shoot-out in Berlin. However, Argentina’s national honour was to some extent restored when its football team clinched the men’s gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The path to glory was notable on two fronts: ­confirmation of the extraordinary talent of FC Barcelona’s ­Argentine-born youngster Lionel Messi and the much publicised presence of Maradona as a TV commentator. When Argentina won its gold, Maradona rushed down into the changing rooms and joined in the celebration with the ­players. The cameras followed.

The chance for Maradona to make his pitch for a key role in international football came later that summer as Argentina faltered in its attempts to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, bringing new coach Basile under increasing pressure. Finally, in October 2008, the unfortunate Basile was forced out, his record of just four wins in nine matches insufficient to appease his critics. The crunch came when ­Argentina lost 1-0 to Chile, their first defeat by their Andean neighbour in 35 years.

After the match, a network of powerful interests swung into action, lobbying intensively in favour of Maradona’s appointment as national coach despite concerns that his personality was ill-suited to the demands of the job. The exercise is thought to have included personal phone calls to Julio ­Grondona, head of the Argentine Football Association, from three Latin American presidents: Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Argentina’s own Néstor Kirchner.

Maradona’s son-in-law, Kun Agüero, a member of the Argentine squad who plays for Atlético Madrid, was among those who joined what one insider described as a “palace coup” following the defeat by Chile, persuading his fellow players to vote with their feet in favour of Maradona. An exception was Juan Román Riquelme, who publicly objected to the underhand manner of Basile’s removal and quit. Maradona expressed few regrets, and the rest of the Argentine squad closed ranks behind him, going on to beat Scotland and France in warm-up matches, and Venezuela in a World Cup qualifier.

“With Maradona on board, Argentina’s national football squad is like The Beatles,” footballer-turned-businessman Guillermo Tofoni proclaimed soon after Maradona’s appointment was confirmed on October 28, 2008. Tofoni’s company, World Eleven, markets Argentina’s international friendly matches and he had no doubt about the extent to which El Diego’s presence boosted publicity.

But questions about Maradona’s coaching abilities began to surface as Argentina stumbled in subsequent games, beginning with a humiliating 1-6 defeat away to Bolivia. A succession of four defeats in five games left Argentina in danger of failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. Their rollercoaster progress through the qualifying round until then had been widely seen as a product of ­Maradona’s eccentric talents as manager. In his first year as coach, he capped more than 70 players and experimented with back fours, midfield sixes and four-pronged attacks, complemented by a training regime that accommodated his enduring habit of waking late. “The thing about Diego is that he never knows what he is going to do. He acts on instinct. This was the nature of his genius as a player but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee he will be a great manager,” says Marcelo Open, an Argentine lawyer who has counted top players among his clients.

But on October 10 2009 in Buenos Aires, facing Peru and needing a victory to keep alive their hopes of qualifying, Argentina secured a 2-1 win thanks to a dramatic 93rd-minute winner. They were back from the dead. In the midst of a biblical thunderstorm, a rapturous Maradona aquaplaned across the drenched turf in wild celebration.

Days later, Argentina guaranteed their place in this summer’s tournament by beating Uruguay 1-0. Vindicated, ­Maradona rounded on his growing army of critics after the match in a sometimes foul-mouthed rant that was televised around the world. “There were those who did not believe in this team and who treated me as less than nothing,” a wild-eyed Maradona declared, clutching his crotch before the ­cameras. “Today we are in the World Cup finals with help from nobody but honour.”

Two months later, Maradona emerged from the inevitable Fifa ban, his fine paid, and flew to Pretoria to check out the facilities that had been lined up for his squad.

Maradona’s Argentina are now within days of playing in South Africa with a squad that includes some of the world’s most gifted players – the undisputed star among them FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, already voted the best player in the world and, at 22, four years younger than Maradona was at his peak against England in 1986. This was when ­Maradona scored the infamous “hand of God” goal and, later in the same match, dribbled the full length of the pitch, beating six ­players, before scoring a goal of sublime beauty.

Whether Messi has already surpassed Maradona’s brilliance remains an open question, but in Argentina it is still Maradona who commands the greater acclaim. Whereas Messi has spent his teenage years forming himself as an international player outside the country, Maradona made his name with Boca Juniors, the club of the working classes in Buenos Aires. It is in Boca’s home, the southern neighbourhood of La Boca, where the myth of Maradona has endured the longest and where local shopkeepers still do a brisk trade in shirts bearing his name and the number 10 that he made his own. Amidst the tango dancers and pavement painters, the ­Maradona look-alikes balance a football on their feet and charge $10 a picture. There are statues and murals depicting Maradona on almost every corner of La Boca, immortalising him as a social and sporting revolutionary. The most solid remembrance is a large bronze statue at the entrance to the museum at La Bombonera, the Boca Juniors stadium.

But while locals and Latin Americans still generally buy Maradona merchandise before any other, the Europeans who visit La Bombonera buy more shirts bearing Messi’s name. And elsewhere in Buenos Aires, outside Maradona’s stronghold, Messi’s face now dominates the advertising billboards and TV spots. Brand Messi is fast surpassing brand Maradona in the popular consciousness.

The reputations of the two will face their sternest test in South Africa, as will Messi’s ability to express his genius under Maradona’s tutelage. So determined is Maradona to ensure that the young star plays to his full potential and inspires the whole team that he recently flew to Barcelona for an emotional encounter with Messi in which each promised the other to do everything in their gift to bring the World Cup back to Buenos Aires in July. “Messi needs to lead the national team and he knows it,” Maradona said recently. “We have high expectations.”

As for Messi, he remains self-effacing about his achievements. “Even if I play for a million years, I will never be near to what Maradona was as a footballer. I don’t compare myself to Maradona. I want to make my own history and do something important with my career,” he says, before adding: “To be a legend, one needs to win a World Cup.”

In Argentina, the highs and lows of Maradona’s life are rarely far from the headlines, with his most recent ­mishap, also splashed across the front page of The Sun in the UK, occurring when his Shar Pei dog bit him and he was rushed to hospital. His obscene tirade to the cameras last year following qualification for the World Cup finals led to a dip in his popularity, the Argentine media reporting that El Diego had behaved in a manner unworthy of a national hero. More recently, however, he has shown signs of being on the road to redemption in his role as coach of a team that some pundits are predicting could emerge as world champions.

In Argentina, his past infidelities have been forgiven without any Tiger Woods-type act of public contrition, and he lives openly with his latest girlfriend, Veronica Ojeda. His ex-wife Claudia manages his financial affairs, he has reconciled himself with his daughters and now plays the role of supportive father to Dalma, a successful young actress, and to Giannina, mother of his first grandchild.

Such is the public persona. And yet several people I spoke to in Buenos Aires suggested that even if he has kicked his drug habit, Maradona remains the same unpredictable, erratic genius as ever. His occasional descents into violence – of word or deed – are the accumulated result of his upbringing in the lawless environment of the shanty town where he was born, the effects of his long-term drug abuse and influence of the hangers-on and opportunists who have flocked to him over the years.

Maradona himself says that he has been free of drugs for several years, while friends say that he has found a new motivation in his life, and sees World Cup victory this summer as the fulfilment of his ultimate dream. But even those who claim to know him best question whether he will be able to sustain the pressures of the job.

Arguably Maradona will have the most to lose if Argentina fail to live up to their reputation as one of the best squads in the world. Individual stars, including Messi, will survive to play another day, but failure for Maradona will mean much more than national humiliation for football-mad Argentina. It will mean the destruction of a myth. Maradona, the erratic genius borne aloft on the hand of God, will finally be brought to earth, a defeated leader with feet of clay.

An updated paperback edition of Jimmy Burns’s biography, ‘Maradona: The Hand of God’, is published this month by Bloomsbury

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