"I was weeping and people were saying: 'Come back, Diego, come back!' The whole stadium was chanting 'Maradoo, Maradoo!'"
Full circle for Maradona
"I was weeping and people were saying: 'Come back, Diego, come back!' The whole stadium was chanting 'Maradoo, Maradoo!'" Diego Maradona is no stranger to the notion of a messianic return to galvanise a football team and an entire nation. He has always possessed a sense of destiny or, to be more exact, a sense of his own destiny. Occasionally, however, reality makes an unwanted appearance in Maradona's world. He came back once, when the prospect of Argentina failing to qualify for the World Cup veered from the unthinkable to the plausible, returning at the wishes of his people.
Yet the popular demand for Maradona during the 5-0 defeat to Colombia in 1993, detailed above in his autobiography, preceded an unconvincing play-off against Australia and a World Cup that was scarred by his failed drug test. Sixteen years on, Argentina again face the prospect of missing the global showpiece. Then Maradona was the solution. Now he is the problem. For El Diego, it has come full circle.
Argentina have lost four of their last five competitive matches, including a 6-1 thrashing in Bolivia. The South American qualifying system may appear devised to ensure the continent's two superpowers, Brazil and Argentina, compete in every World Cup, with four places in South Africa guaranteed. With two games to go, Argentina sit uncomfortably in fifth, facing a potential play-off with North American opponents. They could finish as low as eighth. Despite the cocaine addiction, the failed drug tests, the ballooning weight, the stomach-stapling surgery and the muddled private life, it would represent Maradona's greatest humiliation. Patriotism has been a rare constant in a chaotic existence.
Yet, in many respects, it wasn't Argentina who won the 1986 World Cup. It was Maradona. Such was his impact that no man has come closer to refuting the idea that football is a team game. Few, given the disproportionate scale of his vast talent, are less qualified to manage a side. A generation grew up idolising him, but they are struggling to perform for him. Lionel Messi's form is far superior for Barcelona, Carlos Tevez has scored more regularly on either side of Manchester.
Even the manager's de facto son-in-law Sergio Aguero is a greater force for Atletico Madrid. With perhaps the most enviable attack in the world, Argentina have scored three goals in their last five qualifiers. Managing them is a task for a tactician, not an idol. Merely picking gifted players without any sense of structure has made Argentina the footballing equivalent of a freeform jazz ensemble. Regimentation and organisation have enabled less able outfits to hit the high notes.
Now Maradona is casting around in a search for a saviour. Striker Martin Palermo has returned to the international fold for the first time in a decade, while drafting in the uncapped 30-year-old Rodrigo Brana as cover for Javier Mascherano also falls into the category of strange selections. Gonzalo Higuain and Emiliano Insua are other newcomers as Maradona has cast his eye from Madrid to Merseyside.
Increasingly, however, he has looked locally, despite the proliferation of able Argentines scattered around the world. His squad features nine home-based players including Juan Sebastian Veron, who is suspended after his dismissal in the 1-0 defeat to Paraguay. After 11 months in charge, even back-to-back wins this week may not prevent Maradona from resigning before his one-year anniversary. Julio Grondona, the veteran AFA President, claimed it was an "inspired" appointment last November. That view is shared by decreasing numbers.
Nevertheless, Argentina have one advantage. They begin by facing the weakest side in the South American section. However, Saturday's game against Peru is followed by a visit to Uruguay. Maradona's fate will be determined at the stadium that hosted in the inaugural World Cup final in 1930. For the superstitious, it may offer an unfortunate omen. Argentina lost that game 4-2. For the optimists, succour can come from an old adversary.
Brazil's laboured qualification for the 2002 World Cup preceded their eventual triumph in it. Maradona, however, the man who has a church devoted to him in Argentina, seems to believe that the will have a divine right to succeed. "God saved me many times, I hope he saves me this time too," he said last week. Now, however, a footballing idol risks converting his hoard of fervent worshippers against him.