Argentina's Indomitable Deity
Soccer Legend Maradona Transcended Addiction, Obesity and Lost Fortunes to Reach His Dream: Coach of the National Team
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 28, 2009; A06
Jan. 18, 2000
In 2000, Maradona went to Cuba to receive treatment for his cocaine habit, two weeks after he was admitted to a Uruguayan private clinic after collapsing due to a drug overdose. Here, he and his wife ,Claudia Villafane, enter the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana shortly after their arrival in the Cuban capital.
Adalberto Roque-AFP/Getty Images
BUENOS AIRES -- When Lionel Messi, the man many consider the best soccer player in the world, arrived at the Argentine national team's practice facility Thursday, the commotion was considerable. Fans gathered outside the gated complex and surrounded his silver SUV in a jubilant mass, snapping photographs and begging for autographs.
Then a few minutes later, Diego Maradona pulled up in a black Mini Cooper. The short 48-year-old had graying stubble, tattooed forearms and a thick waist. Grown men emitted high, soft noises that expressed an emotion somewhere between reverie and helplessness. Journalists ran unabashed toward the driver. A man barked at the security guards who tried to pry him loose from the windshield. "Thank you, Diego," one man repeated. "Thank you."
No matter how talented or exciting Argentina's soccer players are this year, the story of this season has been indisputably about one man: Maradona, the nation's living legend and soccer god, who has assumed responsibility as the coach of the storied national team. His presence on the sidelines in many ways is as remarkable as any of his feats on the field, where he led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup championship and won, along with Brazilian star Pelé, the award for best player of the 20th century.
That's because Maradona is a former cocaine addict who was kicked out of the 1994 World Cup for doping, had his stomach stapled to battle obesity and suffered a life-threatening heart attack, is an outspoken admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, once shot an air rifle at reporters and is a man whom polls showed a majority of Argentines did not want to coach their national team.
"I am in a place that a year ago, I didn't believe I would be in," Maradona told reporters Thursday.
But even this comeback is typical Maradona, who has called coaching the national team a lifelong dream.
"Maradona always rises from the ashes like a phoenix," said Julio Chiappetta, a sportswriter for Argentina's Clarin newspaper. "He's always had this ability. When everything has been lost, when no solution is at hand, Maradona, with his inner strength -- so great, so energetic, so vigorous -- he comes out on top once again."
Maradona faces his first big test as coach Saturday, when Argentina plays Venezuela in a World Cup 2010 qualifying match here. In two earlier exhibition matches, Maradona led Argentina to victory over Scotland and France. The wins have fueled enthusiasm for the team, but many acknowledge it is too early to judge Maradona's coaching abilities. His brief tenure in two previous coaching jobs in the mid-1990s with Argentine professional teams was undistinguished.
And he has now encountered his first real controversy: One of the team's stars, Juan Román Riquelme, abruptly resigned this month and said differences with Maradona made it impossible for the two to work together. Even Pelé has gotten in a shot. "A great player is not always a good coach," he said.
Many of the Argentine players, however, seem thrilled to be playing under a legend.
"He was the greatest in the world," Javier Zanetti, a veteran national team player, said at the practice facility Thursday. "And today for him to be coach, it's a very beautiful thing for us."
As with any soccer-loving nation, the Argentines grieve defeats of their national team as if they were deaths in the family. This pain, plus Maradona's volatile off-the-field career, has left many fans wary of falling too quickly for their new leader.
Gustavo Otero, 41, an engineer who watched Argentina defeat France last month inside a popular Buenos Aires sports bar, said he did not want to get disillusioned. "These are our first steps with Maradona," he said. "We need to wait and be cautious. We are not champions yet. We have a very long road."
Otero is willing to forgive Maradona's past indiscretions now that the legend appears more grounded, mature and healthy.
"Despite everything, he demonstrated that he can fight, that he can continue forward. I think this gives a lot of hope to children with problems, that you can continue and fight and win," Otero said.
Diego Armando Maradona grew up in Villa Fiorito, a slum on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Even as a child he was a soccer prodigy, and he made his professional debut in Argentina's First Division just before his 16th birthday.
Among other teams, he played for Barcelona in Spain, Napoli in Italy and with the national team in four World Cups. His two goals against England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, one with a hand-ball foul that wasn't called and now is known as the "Hand of God" goal, and a half-field weaving sprint through a stunned English defense are two of the most famous ever scored.
His place in the soccer pantheon is unchallenged, and his highlights are played on Argentine television as if they happened the night before. But there is an obsession for Maradona in his homeland that goes well beyond normal fanhood toward actual worship. He is the patron saint of the Church of Maradona, which claims more than 100,000 members. "Our Diego, who art on earth, hallowed be thy left hand," their prayer begins, and members are baptized by punching a soccer ball to re-create the Hand of God goal.
Maradona has never been an easy god to worship. Over the years, he has lost fortunes, gone into debt and regained millions. He has criticized the pope. He said that he began using drugs while playing for Barcelona. In the early 1990s, he failed a drug test for cocaine and was suspended for 15 months, and he has done stints in rehab for drug and alcohol abuse.
"The people have to understand that Maradona is not a machine for giving happiness," Maradona wrote in his autobiography, "I am Diego of the People."
Taxi driver Roberto Mahmud, 55, agrees completely.
"I am anti-Maradona," he said. "Everything that is abnormal and depraved, he has done. The drugs, the alcohol, the women, the lack of respect for anyone. He's lost millions of dollars. He's friends with Fidel Castro. If I did the things he's done, I'd be in jail."
Before being named national team coach last year, Maradona was playing five-man soccer with other former stars on a mini-field and hosting a television talk show. He has lately lost weight, has been speaking more diplomatically and recently became a grandfather. Maradona says he's living drug-free.
Now, as before, every move makes headlines. Some fans argue that Maradona is a sideshow that distracts too much attention from the players, but others say the spotlight on him alleviates some of the pressure they face.
"It's something that we enjoy very much," said midfielder Jonás Gutiérrez. "Just the fact that we are able to take a photo or have an autograph, so we also can hold onto this memory."
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