x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Diego Maradona, the striker who dived and rose again

A footballing genius who succumbed to drug addiction, he is now back as the manager who could reclaim the World Cup.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

Argentina's emergence as one the hot favourites to win the 2010 World Cup in South Africa has generated two distinctly opposite points of view. One opinion holds that Los Albicelestes have risen to the occasion thanks largely to the inspirational guidance and great vision of their leader. The other is that this is mostly in spite of him.

For Diego Armando Maradona, life has always been played at the extremes. In the first place, he really ought to be dead; killed by a heart attack at the age of 40 after years of drug abuse compounded by massive weight gain. And yet here he is, 10 years later and fighting fit: just two games short of an appearance in his third World Cup final, twice as player and this time as manager.

If there are any doubts that his boys in blue and white will not conquer Germany in the quarter finals tonight, then brush past Brazil, or whoever else stands between them and the golden trophy, then do not tell them to Maradona. In recent days he has been coming out with the sort of statements that have endeared him to the world's media - if not their intended recipients - for so many years.

After victory over Mexico, he said: "Why should I think about Germany right now? I can always think about Germany tomorrow when I have my time to celebrate the victory tonight. For now you can go on and write whatever you want about what I may think about Germany." That Maradona and Argentina are even in the quarter finals, let alone looking like potential winners, is an extraordinary change of fortune. His appointment as manager of the national side two years ago raised eyebrows and a 6-1 thrashing by Bolivia in a qualifying game last April - the worst defeat in Argentina's history - only seemed to confirm that a terrible lapse in judgement had been made.

In the end, the team just qualified for South Africa on the last day and in fourth place in the South American group. His post-match press conference was a tirade of obscenities against those who had doubted him, especially in the media, and prompted a Fifa inquiry. Yet now it seems as though Maradona was the man for the job after all. Perhaps living a life so finely balanced between triumph and disaster has given him a better perspective on what is only a game of football. "They said I had no idea about how to coach," he said about the mauling by Bolivia recently. "But suddenly I am winning matches and I am still the same guy."

He has taken, after all, much worse beatings from Bolivia than a five goal defeat by that country's footballers. For nearly 20 years from the mid-1980s, he was in the grip of a cocaine addiction that all but destroyed him. In the Maradona scrapbook, there is no more shocking chapter than the one that records the man as he was in 2004, the year of his second near-fatal heart attack, again attributed to drug abuse. A bloated, lumbering figure, the once hawk-like features rendered flat by layers of blubber, he looked like someone who had long since run out of options.

That second attack was compounded by severe breathing problems and infections that led to him being placed on a respirator. When doctors finally removed the tubes and Maradona breathed unaided once more, his first intake of breath was accompanied by fans kneeling in devotion outside the Buenos Aires hospital and millions more around the world. "He always said that he had been taken to the peak of a mountain but, once there, nobody told him what to do," his former wife, Claudia Villafañe, once observed. The couple divorced in 2004 after a marriage that survived nearly 25 years. Maradona has admitted to frequent infidelities, including fathering a child with an Italian woman, conceived during his time playing for Naples. Yet he still describes Villafañe as "the love of my life".

Maradona's mountain peak was reached on a single day - June 22, 1986, in a World Cup quarter final against England. The Argentinian was a great player before that day, of course. His transfer to Barcelona after the 1982 World Cup for the equivalent of £5 million was a world record at the time, as was a second transfer to Napoli two years later. But over 90 minutes at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, the legend was born. England fans remember the infamous "hand of god" moment, as the Argentinean later referred to it, when he tipped the ball into the net past Peter Shilton with the nudge of a volleyball player. The world, though, remembers as well what happened four minutes later. It can scarcely be recreated in print: Maradona picks up the ball in his own half, twists round in a semicircle past two England markers, accelerates through the opposition defence in a 60-metre, 10-second sprint that ends with the ball, coolly, inevitably, slotted into the back of the net.

The goal of the century, it was called. A week later Argentina were world champions, with a 3-2 victory over the Germans. It scarcely mattered that Maradona's name was not on the score sheet. He had dominated the tournament in a manner only matched by Pelé in 1970. Four years later, Argentina faced Germany again in the final. This time they were defeated, with an ankle injury reducing Maradona to little more than a bit player. Worse was to come in 1994. After playing two games, Maradona failed a drugs test and was sent home from the United States in disgrace. The player's explanation was that he had been taking ephedrine as an appetite suppressant to control his weight. More controversially, he claimed that the authorities had known this, but turned a blind eye because they were desperate for his participation in the tournament to ensure its success in a country where football was only an emerging sport. The allegations have never been proved.

By then the player was in the grip of a cocaine addiction, a habit he acquired while playing for Barcelona. It worsened considerably at Naples. He was worshipped by fans as a demi-god, after delivering the club's first Serie A title, but there were persistent rumours behind the scenes of a connection with organised crime. In 1991, he was charged by police in Rome for the possession and supply of cocaine to prostitutes, but fled home to Argentina after failing a drug test at his club. In his absence he was given a 14-month suspended prison sentence and a Dh11,000 fine.

After retiring from professional football in the late 1990s, his health continued to worsen. He suffered his first heart attack while on holiday in Uruguay in January 2000; local police also wanted an explanation for the traces of cocaine found in his blood. His rehabilitation took place in a Cuban clinic. The footballer has always shown left-wing sympathies and became a friend of Fidel Castro at the time. As tribute, he tattooed a portrait of Castro on his left leg and another of Che Guevara, the revolutionary and fellow Argentinian, on his right arm.

Like those left-wing idols, Maradona is essentially a populist; unlike Che, the middle-class intellectual, or Castro, the prosperous lawyer, Maradona emerged from the shantytown suburbs of Buenos Aires, a true working-class hero. More recently he has emerged as a supporter of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, arriving at the 2005 Summit of the Americas with a T-shirt bearing the slogan "Stop Bush", and referring to the former American president as "human garbage".

Back to his fighting weight and clean of drink and drugs for more than three years, he now presents an almost respectable figure on the touchline, at least when his emotions are under control. But how will he react in the face of victory or defeat in the coming days? As he put in the only printable part of his World Cup post-qualification rant: "I am either white or black. I will never be grey in my life."