Friday, May 27, 2011

Maradona: Soccer's Unpredictable Legend

It is the plastic cup they want, the one that just touched the lips of Diego Armando Maradona. "Diego, Diego, the cup!" the kids scream from the stands of the old soccer stadium. Maradona is taking the first water break of his first public workout of 1994, his first step toward playing the World Cup this summer in the United States. He looks happy today. He signs autographs, smiles for the cameras and jokes with the 300 or so fans that have come to see him. He takes a drink of water, leans across the stadium moat and softly lofts his Pepsi cup underhand into the waiting arms of a smiling 9-year-old girl named Nadal Gilotti, who then runs up the stands and sits in a bleacher, mesmerized by the trophy she clutches with both hands.

Maradona's rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches legend has swept through Asia, Europe, Africa and Australia. In Catholic South America, he's more popular than the Pope. It is no exaggeration to say that Maradona is as well-known world-wide as Michael Jordan.

Often tempestuous, sometimes unpredictable and always outspoken, Maradona is nobody's example of the ideal sports ambassador. His resume includes a 15-month suspension from the sport and a subsequent arrest for using cocaine. He routinely criticizes his country's president and FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Assn.), soccer's international governing body. His penchant for talking about his friend Fidel Castro has earned him death threats from Cuban Americans in Florida.

For the past 15 years, Maradona's life has been just about as private as Michael Jordan's or Michael Jackson's-and like the famous Michaels, at times Maradona seems incapable of avoiding controversy. Last month, for example, reporters shouting questions outside his home were met with a hail of pellets from an air rifle fired from inside his house. Injured reporters filed suit against Maradona and charges are pending. Maradona, without addressing who fired the gun, said the reporters repeatedly refused to stop screaming out questions and they were upsetting his daughters.

The following night, he and his family fled their home, hiding in the back of a pickup truck, only to be discovered days later by two reporters at a secluded seaside resort.

Unlike soccer's other great legend, the now-retired Pele, Maradona never played in the United States, and until now, he has avoided the English-language media for most of his career.

But he agreed to a rare talk a few days before the air gun incident over a cup of espresso in a crowded hotel. He did it, he said, "for the American kids, who really love the sport, even if the adults haven't warmed up to it yet."

Before the interview was over, he had touched on his unbridled passion for Argentina and the sport that made him famous; his hopes for the upcoming World Cup, which he said will be his last hurrah; his regrets over his past drug use, and his love-hate relationship with the United States.

"I like Americans, their freedom, the way they live, even though they may not be as fun-loving as I'd like them to be," he said. "And what I don't like about the United States is that perhaps they try too hard to dominate the rest of the world and solve everybody's problems."

Nobody needs to tell Maradona that soccer is not a major U.S. sport. During a recent vacation in the Dominican Republic, he came across a group of families from New York. The kids, he said, immediately recognized him. "They wanted their moms to take their picture with me. A lady in green came up with a camera and asked me, "Who are you?' and I said, "Joe Montana.' The woman said, "Great, I'm getting a picture of Joe Montana.' Her kid turned red; he was really embarrassed."

Maradona knows U.S. sports fans like lots of scoring-the one thing soccer lacks. So what's so great about a 1-0 or 2-1 game?

"Magic Johnson doesn't need to score to gain my admiration," he replies. "Magic wins my admiration with his great no-look passes, even if the ball doesn't end up in the basket. So that's the beauty of the game. You don't need to score to be creative and entertaining."

A prolific scorer by soccer standards, Maradona is best known for his all-around game: his precision passes, his dribbles and fakes, his ability to attract a crowd of players and then find the open teammate streaking toward the opponent's goal. He is, in sum, the closest thing to a Wayne Gretzky on grass.

At 33, Maradona has lost a few steps but has adapted by becoming more assist-minded. At 5 feet 5 and about 165 pounds, he most resembles Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders, and, like the football stars, he exploits his low center of gravity and uses quick bursts of speed to avoid defenders' tackles. Like all the great ones, he's won everything, at every level of the sport-including the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City, where he delivered what many regard as the best individual performance in Cup history.

Maradona, the son of laborers, grew up in poverty in the streets of Villa Fiorito, one of Buenos Aires' roughest neighborhoods.

At 10, he became a minor celebrity when television cameras discovered him putting on ball-control exhibitions at halftimes of professional games. For 15 minutes, the ball would touch his feet, knees, chest, head, thighs and heels, but never hit the ground. After his performance, awe-struck crowds would boo the returning professional players. He turned professional at 15 and became an overnight success, making the national team only eight games into the season. Later that year, he suffered his first major disappointment when he was left out in the final cut of the Argentine team that went on to win the 1978 World Cup.

Vindication would come a year later when he would lead Argentina to victory in the Junior World Cup in Japan. By then, he was being called "The White Pele."

"Soccer gave me everything," said Maradona. "It gave me the chance to do what I like, have fun, get paid a lot and make happy the people I love. Every morning that I get up, I should light a candle to the soccer ball."

As Maradona spoke, a half-dozen reporters sat a few tables away, drinking beer and munching green olives. Another 30 or so hotel guests and local business people sat around the other tables, filling the room. Everybody pretended to ignore the most famous living Argentine. It was a measure of their respect.

The interview took place in the Hotel Riviera Palace, the pride of downtown Rosario, a depressed industrial city of 1 million about 100 miles north of Buenos Aires. Maradona, a multimillionaire, chose to live in this busy eight-story building with motel-sized rooms during the past soccer season. His wife and two daughters stayed home in Buenos Aires, where the girls attend school.

"At some point I thought about living in the United States. I talked about it with my wife," Maradona said. He especially liked that the United States is one of the few countries where he's not instantly recognized. "But the thing is, I love to be in my country, among my people."

By the time he was 18, Maradona had won the Argentine championship, and his transfer to the higher-paid European leagues seemed inevitable. He was sold to the Spanish team Barcelona in 1982 for a then-record $8 million, but before he could start playing in Spain, he would have to help defend Argentina's world title in World Cup Spain '82. It was not to be Maradona's tournament. Distracted by the Falklands War, the Argentine team went down quietly in the second round and its star player's luster seemed to fade.

His two years in Spain were marred by a bout of hepatitis and a fractured ankle that sidelined him for several months. In between, he managed to lead Barcelona to the 1983 Spanish Cup.

In 1984, he was transferred to Napoli of the Italian league, host to the world's best-paid soccer players. In his six years there, Maradona turned a perennial loser from one of Italy's poorest regions into a dynasty, winning a total of five Italian and European tournaments. For that, he became a hero of the Italian working class and was rewarded with an endorsement portfolio that rivaled Michael Jordan's.

But the kid from Villa Fiorito proved to be ill-prepared for life in the fishbowl. Everywhere he went, he was mobbed by fans. Italian newspapers reported rumors that he was taking drugs and was friendly with the Mafia. He was hit with a paternity suit. He partied at discos and gained weight. His play on the field suffered. Off the field, in the social event of 1989 in Argentina, he went home and married his high school sweetheart, Claudia Villafane, with whom he already had two daughters. But for staging such a lavish gathering-he chartered a plane to bring his friends from Italy and rented a boxing hall for the reception-he was criticized in newspapers all over the world for his flamboyant ways.

As far as Argentines were concerned, all was forgiven when he captained the national team to an unexpected second-place finish in the 1990 World Cup.

Maradona considers eliminating host Italy in the semifinals that year the most important day of his career. As he recalled that game at the hotel bar, the skin on his arms broke out in goose bumps.

"Look," he said, "the allure of your flag is the most beautiful itch you will ever feel. When (Italian fans) tore up our flag in front of the hotel window before the Italy game, I can't explain what was going on inside me." He paused.

He leaned forward, raised his eyebrows, and said in a grave, slow monotone: "I wanted to beat them. I wanted to leave them out of their own World Cup."

Nursing a torn muscle ("I shouldn't have even played in that game"), Maradona went on to assist on the game-tying goal and score the game-winning penalty kick. Afterward, he said, he rushed back to the hotel to kiss the new flag that hung from his window.

His bitterness toward Italy would grow in the ensuing months. He fought with Napoli team officials. News accounts linked him to a prostitution ring. In 10 years, the bright-eyed extrovert had become a hardened shell.

In April 1991, he tested positive for cocaine after an Italian league game and FIFA slapped him with a world-wide, 15-month suspension. He reached his lowest point a month later when he was arrested in a Buenos Aires apartment after a cocaine binge. It was a Marion Barry-style sting operation, complete with a beautiful female undercover agent and an army of photographers and television camera crews recording the moment he was led into a patrol car handcuffed and glassy-eyed. For weeks, the bust was the biggest story in Argentina. One the day after the sting, President Carlos Menem stripped Maradona of his sports ambassadorship and called him "a sick child."

Looking back, Maradona seems remorseful when he says, "I (messed) up and paid for it." But, in the next breath he adds, "I know I was set up. But you know what? They did me a great favor because they tried to kill me and instead they put me on the side of the people. The corrupt, the powerful never go to jail in this country and they never will." A few days after the arrest, Maradona was freed on bail and he entered a court-ordered drug treatment program, which he completed last year. Through it all, Argentine soccer fans stayed loyal to their idol. Everywhere Argentine teams played, the crowds erupted in a spontaneous chant: "Ole, Ole, Ole Oleeee, Dieeegoo, Dieeegoo!" When the soccer suspension ended, he signed with the Spanish team Seville. But in an up-and-down season, he only showed flashes of the vintage Maradona. For the most part he looked like an old, overweight player headed toward retirement.

Meanwhile, the Argentine national team was doing fine without him. After the 1990 World Cup, it went on a 33-game undefeated streak, a run that included two South American championships. Nobody seemed to care when Maradona announced his retirement last summer.

But then Argentina suffered the most humiliating defeat in its storied history: a 5-0 embarrassment to Colombia in Buenos Aires last September that left the team on the brink of elimination from World Cup '94.

"I cried a lot that day-a lot," recalled Maradona, who watched the game from the stands. "It was like they were touching my flag. My dad came into my bedroom, my wife, my daughters, and they couldn't make me stop crying. I tried to explain to my girls that their father had given blood, ankle, knee, guts, everything to that jersey that had lost 5-0 that day, and that I needed to come back."

Two months after the Colombia disaster, Argentina had to weather a two-game home-and-away series with Australia for the final berth in the World Cup finals, and Maradona was ready. He had gone on a diet and lost 30 pounds. To hone his soccer skills, he signed up with the Rosario-based Newell's Old Boys team of the Argentine first Division.

Maradona's debut with Newell's last October was a national event, televised live. He was introduced a half hour before the sold-out game, walking onto the spotlighted turf with his two daughters amid thunderous cheers from 35,000 fans. When it was over, Maradona had scored the game-winning goal.

"Soccer is skin," said Maradona. "It's giving the people that happiness they never get from the government, or from the empty promises politicians have been making for years. Soccer never lied to the Argentine. When we couldn't win, we didn't. And when we did win, we all celebrated together."

Against Australia, Maradona's presence on the field seemed enough to kick-start the Argentine team. The rugged Australians played tough but were overmatched. Argentina qualified.

Given his uneven history, Argentine soccer fans were naturally curious about whether Maradona would show up for his first preseason practice with Newell's Jan. 12 after a month-long layoff. Is he in shape? Are his drug problems behind him? Are his injuries healed? Is he ready to lead Argentina to another World Cup victory? Millions of people wanted to know. That's why some two dozen reporters showed up.

Maradona looked trim, muscular and cleanshaven. His black, curly hair was tightly fashioned in a preppy haircut that exposed his trademark left earring. He wore shorts, a T-shirt and a pair of cheap sneakers. There were no bandages or braces protecting his injury-ravaged body. He jogged without a limp. But Maradona's presence at World Cup '94 is far from guaranteed. In the latest of his famous mood swings, Maradona quit Newell's on the eve of a preseason game. So nobody, not even Maradona, can predict his future.

"I'll probably retire after the World Cup-if my heart lets me," he said. "Sometimes it's hard to give it all up. After the Australia game, I wanted to be the last guy to leave the stadium. I wanted to turn off the lights and walk out with the last fan."

After hanging up his cleats, Maradona said he hopes to someday coach the national team, but for the most part he would like to teach soccer to the Argentine children.

"I'd like to start a university to teach kids the game-without stealing from them. Not like some washed up player who retires without a penny and then tells kids, "Give me a thousand dollars and I'll teach you to play just like me.' There are certain things you can't teach. I'll just say come on over and play. Come and play and I won't steal from you."

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