Few individuals hold the key to making the World Cup one of the most exhilarating there has ever been and the most controversial than Diego Maradona, a flawed genius whose drug-fuelled helter-skelter life had produced some of the best football in the history of the game. It will be fascinating to watch whether Maradona can inspire his talented squad to greatness, or be brought down to earth, in tears.
In his native Argentina, Maradona remains a legend, the country’s most famous export far surpassing any writer, artist, or politician in his ability to fuel mass interest across frontiers. The nation’s identity with Maradona has been fuelled by the populist centre-left Peronist government which has spent most of a decade encouraging his return to a prominent role in football after his last descent into drug-induced collapse.
In January 2000 Maradona stared death in the face again after proving himself, over the years remarkably resilient to self-abuse. Grossly overweight and suffering from a heart condition that he had inherited from his father, he collapsed while on vacation in the Uruguayan resort of Punta Del Este. Maradona’s friend, the Argentine president at the time Carlos Menem put it all down to a ‘stress attack.’ Later the Uruguayan police revealed that analysis of Maradona’s blood and urine showed ‘excessive consumption of cocaine.’
Within days, he was residing in Havana, Cuba, courtesy of another friend Fidel Castro. Photographs of that time show Maradona, with a shock of died orange hair, a tattoo of Che Guevara on his flabby arm and a heart monitor round his ample girth, looking like an inflated Harpo Marx. In 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 Maradona’s presence on the island. The local media portrayed him as the good leader of the people, in contrast to the Goliath of the North (the United States) who had refused to give Maradona a visa since his expulsion from the 1994 World Cup.
His subsequent thirty-episode chat show, called La Noche del Diez (The Night of the Number 10) Maradona enticed a range of international sports stars, musicians, and his favourite politician Castro to participate as guests. In the opening programme, Maradona and Pele exchanged personally autographed national shirts, headed a ball to each other for nearly a minute, and sang a tango together. The performance pushed the TV show to the top of the ratings list.
And yet ratings for the final ‘The Night of the Number Ten’ –an interview with Castro- dipped suggesting that Maradona’s popularity remained, as it always had been, based more on football than politics . Viewers were getting tired of a programme that was such a blatant exercise in self-promotion and seemed to get Maradona no nearer to another sporting come-back.
Argentina qualified for this summer’s tournament after beating Uruguay 1-0. The victory was overshadowed by Maradona’s globally televised and You-tubed sexually explicit, foul-mouthed rant at his growing army of media critics.
“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 honor. To all of you who did not believe in us, and I apologize to all the women here, you can suck my dick and keep sucking it. I am black or white, I’ll never be grey in my life. You can take it up your ass.”
Victim, knight, defiant rebel, foul-mouthed sexist thug-only Diego Maradona could claim to be all four in one statement, and get away with it.
Maradona’s Argentina now enters the tournament 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, at the age of 22, four years younger than Maradona in hisprime when in Mexico 1986 , he invoked the Hand of God in his controversial goal against England. Maradona in that match went to score one of the best goals ever seen in the history of football. The genius of Messi’s performance with FC Barcelona reached new heights in the quarter final match of the Champions league earlier this season when he scored four sublime goals against Arsenal and provoked glowing headlines around the world.
The jury is out whether Messi has already surpassed Maradona’s brilliance but in Argentina it is still Maradona who remains the more popular of the two. Whereas Messi has spent his teenage years forming himself as an international player outside Argentina, Maradona first made his name with BocaJuniors, the club of the working classes in Buenos Aires. It is in Boca’s home, the southern Buenos Aires neighbourhood of La Boca, where the myth of Maradona as the people’s idol has endured the longestand where local shopkeepers still manage a brisk trade in shirts surviving from his days as a player.
Which of the two will endure as a living legend will be put to the test in South Africa, as will Messi’s ability to express his genius under Maradona ’s tutelage. There appears little evidence to back up the somewhat irrational theory that Maradona wants to deliberately undermine Messi in order to preserve his own place in history. On the contrary, Maradona has never displayed any paranoia in the presence of his his alleged successor while Messi considers Maradona his footballing idol.“I’ve seen the guy who will inherit my place in Argentine football,” Maradona said of Messi in 2005. More recently he declared: “Messi needs to lead the national team and the he knows it. We have high expectations.”
So determined is Maradona to ensure that the young star plays to the best of his abilities in South Africa and inspires a whole team, that he recently flew to Barcelona and spent an emotional session 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. “The Argentine players are growing in confidence with every day under Diego, “ Maradona’s childhood friend and one-time agent Jorge Cyterszpiler told me.
As for Messi, he remains self-effacing about his achievements despite a growing tendency to show a public display of gratitude to God for his goals with the sign of the Cross. “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, before adding. “To be a legend one needs to win a World Cup.’
The fact that both Maradona and Messi have declared a common ambition of winning the Cup in South Africa may explain why an increasing number of Argentine football fans are sporting their national colours these days and why a popular chant has begun to resonate beyond La Bombonera. “We will once again be champions, just like in 86,” it goes.
- Jimmy Burns’ revised and updated best-selling biography of Diego Maradona: ‘Maradona: The Hand of God” has just been pubished by Bloomsbury.
- For more information on the author and his books and an amazon bookshop