Argentina cries for 'that hand of God' as Maradona bids farewell to football

Latin American Times: Argentina
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The Independent US

There was no point in singing "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" when 50,000 Argentine fans gathered in Boca Juniors' Bombonera stadium to weep and sob through the farewell match of their legendary player Diego Armando Maradona.

Tears were flowing on the field and in the stands, before and after the game, and down the chubby cheeks of the controversial Golden Boy, who shed nearly three stone to come out of retirement for this send-off. He managed to fire off two goals to rapturous applause and his side triumphed 6-3.

A Buenos Aires rock group, the Paranoid Rats, melodramatically screeched out "I want Diego to play for ever!" just before the familiar bowlegged figure appeared on the pitch. He was flanked by his two daughters in team shirts, and his wife, Claudia, cheered from the sidelines. Maradona led Argentina's national team against an All-Stars selection that included the Frenchman Eric Cantona, the Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov and the quirky Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita.

Watching from a VIP box was Pele, the Brazilian superstar, who has endured rancorous jibes from Argentina's most celebrated athlete but showed up to honour him, alongside the French star Michel Platini. To prevent rabid Maradona fans from jeering their hero's rival, the organisers did not introduce Pele until the game had finished. "He deserves a testimonial for all the happiness he has given football," Pele said graciously.

Maradona, 41, is recovering from recent knee surgery and had a heart attack in January last year. He limped throughout much of the second half, but showed glimpses of his former greatness with precision passes that brought to mind the 1986 World Cup finals. The cocaine scandals that curtailed his career four years ago, and the corpulent figure with a peroxide quiff who was packed off to a Cuban rehab centre in disgrace, seemed a lifetime ago. This was a last chance for fans to salute his magical left foot and that hand of God.

"Apart from the birth of my daughters, this is the most moving moment of my life," Maradona sobbed to reporters. "When I felt the explosive atmosphere here, I felt I could touch the heavens."

Maradona whipped off his jersey in the last 20 minutes to reveal his old pale blue Boca Juniors shirt, number 10, underneath and the crowd roared approval. Fanatic supporters could not contain themselves: skyrockets exploded overhead and shrill chants of "Maradoo, Maradoo, Maradoo" echoed around the stadium. Play was stopped while Maradona was hoisted on to the shoulders of all the players and carried for a couple of victory laps. There wasn't a dry eye anywhere.

After the match, Maradona attempted to make a farewell speech through his tears. "Football is the most beautiful and healthiest sport in the world," he said, biting his quivering lip "This is incredible. Now the whole world can see the passion of the Argentine people and the passion for a number 10 who has made them smile on occasions.

"I have waited so long for this game and now it's over. I thank you in the name of my daughters, my parents, and my [agent] Guillermo [Coppola]. I want to thank all the players who played today. I will take this homage to my grave."

There was one sour note to the ultimate adios.Officials from football's governing body, Fifa, scuttled a plan, drawn up by the players themselves, to retire Maradona's Number 10 jersey as a permanent tribute to him. Rules require next year's World Cup teams to number their players from one to 23 and Argentina would be forced to drop a man if they were to honour him in that way.