Judgment day approaches for Diego Maradona (Los Angeles Times)

By Ken Bensinger, Los Angeles Times
June 6, 2010

To the soccer faithful, Argentina should be a lock to win the 2010 World Cup. After all, it has god on its side.

God, as Argentines are wont to point out, is their coach, Diego Maradona, the greatest soccer player of his generation and, arguably, of all time.

To understand the gargantuan shadow Maradona casts over his soccer-mad homeland, one has to conjure up the athleticism of Michael Jordan, the power of Babe Ruth — and the human fallibility of Mike Tyson.

Lump them together in a single barrel-chested man with shaggy black hair and you have El Diego, idol to the millions who call him D10S, a mashup of his playing number and the Spanish word for god.

His divinity is about to be tested.

This week in South Africa, he will lead one of the globe's most gifted teams — one blessed with stars such as Lionel Messi, the reigning world player of the year, and Gonzalo Higuain, whose 27 goals for Real Madrid came behind only Messi in the Spanish league this season. Last month, England's manager singled out the Argentina side as the "most talented" in the 32-nation tournament.

Despite all the firepower, oddsmakers don't like Argentina's chances — not because of its players, but because of its coach. The book on Maradona, 49, is that he's too inexperienced, too volatile, too unsophisticated and too arrogant to capture the trophy for Argentina. That's made Spain and Brazil the favorites in the quadrennial tourney, which kicks off Friday.

The question now is whether Maradona can once again bring glory to Argentina, a feat that would cement his immortality in the world pantheon of sports.

Or will Maradona — as he so often has — succumb to his seemingly insatiable lust for protagonismo, the desire to be the hero at the center of attention, and in the process spoil his team's chances?

Failure could well mark the final fall for soccer's troubled deity.

"The years go by and Maradona continues to be the most popular athlete in the world, the most loved and also the most hated," said Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan intellectual and author of the seminal "Soccer in Sun and Shadow."

"Maradona is a very popular god because he is the most human of the deities, a dirty, arrogant, overbearing, deceitful, swaggering, vicious god, and all this serves only to multiply his prestige. The problem with Maradona is that the gods don't retire," Galeano said. "It's very difficult to return to anonymity after being adored in the highest altars."

Rise of a star

Born desperately poor into one of Buenos Aires' worst neighborhoods, he rose to stardom at just 15 years of age and, at 20, won a club championship with Boca Juniors, Argentina's most popular professional team. He went on to Europe, becoming the highest-paid athlete in the world playing for Barcelona and later Naples, where he still draws throngs whenever he visits.

He is best remembered for the two goals he scored on England — a rivalry sharpened by bitter feelings in the wake of the Falklands War between the two nations — en route to capturing the 1986 World Cup.

The first was infamously scored with his left hand, which is illegal, but somehow escaped the referee's notice. (Maradona attributed it to the "hand of God.") The other, in which he dribbled with his left foot past five English players and the goalkeeper to score, is widely considered the greatest goal of all time. It left the television commentator sobbing in joy, and apologizing for his outburst.

Maradona's world transcends soccer. Argentina's Pibe de Oro, or Golden Boy, is close friends with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, with whom he appeared at a rally protesting then-President George W. Bush. Maradona dedicated his biography to Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, among others. In 2005 he even hosted his own television talk show in Argentina, "Night With No. 10."
But his failings have been as monumental as his accomplishments. En route to a laundry list of soccer laurels strewn across three continents and as many decades, Maradona managed to get himself thrown out of the 1994 World Cup for using ephedrine, was busted twice for cocaine and convicted of shooting an air rifle at journalists. Divorced from his high school sweetheart, he pays child support to several illegitimate children and owes the Italian government more than 30 million euros in unpaid taxes.

"It's a terrible way to represent the country," said Yoni Grassi, who repairs speakers in Santa Fe, 300 miles north of Buenos Aires. "The only thing the whole world knows about Argentina is Diego, and this is how he behaves."

Only 5-foot-5, Maradona ballooned to nearly 300 pounds after hanging up his cleats in 1997 and was hospitalized several times before slimming down after having his stomach stapled. He spent months in Cuba to kick his cocaine habit, hosted by Castro himself.

He now bears a Castro tattoo on his left leg, the face of Che Guevara on his right shoulder and the names of his daughters, Dalma and Giannina, on his forearms.

His fans never wavered. At least three dozen songs have been written about him, and his most fervent fans 12 years ago founded the Maradonian Church, which today claims to have more than 100,000 members worldwide. If he were to run for president, some Argentine polls have shown, he'd stand a good chance of winning.

New challenges

Scowling behind a table in a room beneath Uruguay's Centenario Stadium in October, El Diego didn't look like a coach who had just qualified for the world's premier sporting event.

Four days earlier, his team had dodged elimination from the World Cup by beating Peru with a last-minute goal by aging striker Martin Palermo. Maradona celebrated by belly-flopping in the mud.

That set up a 1-0 victory over Uruguay that guaranteed a bid, saving Argentina from missing its first World Cup since 1970.

Rather than celebrate, Maradona used a post-match news conference to accuse the media of treating him "like garbage." He mocked the reporters and TV crews, suggesting that they perform an act unprintable in a family newspaper.

The outburst was only the latest in a series dating back to the startling selection of Maradona as the team's coach a year earlier.

Maradona's entire managerial experience consisted of coaching less than a full season's worth of games for two mediocre Argentine club teams in the 1990s.

Almost immediately after taking the job, Maradona seemed to be making his detractors' case. His team struggled in World Cup qualifying matches, falling to Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay and bitter rival Brazil. Most humiliating of all was a 6-1 drubbing by Bolivia, which has never won a World Cup match.

By getting the team to South Africa, Maradona earned a chance at redemption — and another chance to be in the spotlight.

Butting heads

Soccer's greatest debate still rages: Who was better, Maradona or Pele?

Pele, the sport's most prolific scorer with more than 750 club and international goals, tops most lists. Maradona scored just under 350 goals, but adherents point out that most were netted in tough European leagues, whereas Pele played his entire career in Brazil and for the short-lived Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. The Brazilian's three World Cup titles overshadow Maradona's sole championship, but Pele was injured for one of those and barely played.

The two played in different eras, with different teammates and with different styles; a true comparison is as impossible as pitting Johnny Unitas against Peyton Manning.

Maradona acts as though there is only one soccer god. Accounts of the episode vary, but three months ago, he kept Pele cooling his heels in a Madrid bar for well over four hours before a photo shoot for Louis Vuitton by Annie Leibovitz.

The fashion brand insisted that the two spent time together that day, but pictures of the event tell a different tale: Pele and French soccer icon Zinedine Zidane together, laughing; separately, Maradona, alone before the camera.

The anecdote hints at what could be the greatest risk for Argentina: that Maradona's jealous ego could trip up players like Messi, who scored 47 goals in Europe this season on the way to FIFA's world player of the year award. Under Maradona, Messi scored only one goal in World Cup qualifiers.

"Maradona doesn't play soccer anymore, he coaches it," said Mario Kempes, star forward for the Argentine team that captured the World Cup in 1978. "He needs to remember that."

For some, however, there are hints that there's method in the madness.

"What he lacks in experience, he brings in courage to the team," said Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a midfielder for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer, who played alongside Maradona on Boca Juniors for about six months in the 1990s. "Nobody has more passion than he does."

In addition, some say, the media circus surrounding Maradona may shield his stars so they can focus on soccer. He has gone to great lengths to make his players comfortable, flying them to South Africa early to have time to adjust to the altitude (five of the nine Cup venues are at 4,000 feet or higher) and ensuring that they have plenty of beef in their training meals, a key for any red-blooded Argentine.

Messi, who is often compared to Maradona, said his coach was getting better. Maradona "was a little imposing" at first, he said in an interview on CNN International last month. But now he "gives me a lot more confidence than he did before."

What's at stake

Coaching a national team is trying. Handling delicate superstars, playing a grueling schedule and risking constant second-guessing and scorn has a way of grinding down even the most committed managers.

For a man like Maradona, with money, a brilliant legacy and unparalleled adoration from a nation that considers him a living national treasure, it would certainly have been easier to stay away from the fray.

But a championship, against all expectations, would be something truly sweet, a chance to answer lingering questions about greatness, a chance to secure his reputation as D10S for all time.

"It would be safer to stay home and accept the adoration and love of a soccer-loving public," Maradona says in a television commercial currently airing in Argentina. "It would be safer to sit atop all my glory. But that wouldn't be me."

In recent weeks, Maradona's antics have continued. He ran over the leg of a TV cameraman with his Mini Cooper, then called the victim an idiot. He promised (some may say threatened) to run naked around Buenos Aires' 220-foot-tall Obelisk landmark should Argentina win the World Cup. And he made it known that his players would be allowed to have sex with their wives or girlfriends in South Africa, but that they should keep nighttime consumption of champagne or Cuban cigars to a minimum.

"If he didn't say such things, he wouldn't be Maradona," said Diego "El Chavo" Fucks, a soccer commentator and columnist in Buenos Aires who has covered six World Cups.

Now, with Maradona's team in Pretoria, South Africa, preparing to face Nigeria on Saturday, soccer's fallen archangel once again is at the center of it all.

Can he on the sideline do what he did on the field, joining Germany's Franz Beckenbauer as the only man to win the World Cup as a player and a coach?

And if he does, will his glory overshadow that of his 23 players?

"Today's football has overvalued the role of managers, who apply complicated scientific formulas to direct their teams," said Galeano, the Uruguayan writer.

"The best I ever met was named Coppola. He was the barber in the Uruguayan town Nico Pérez, and he was coach of the town's team. His tactical and strategic plan was limited to saying to the players: 'Good luck, boys.' "


Times staff writer Grahame L. Jones contributed to this report.

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