'God bless you, Maradona': A nation prays for its hero

Outside the hospital, they stood in vigil. Images of the man they have revered for decades were held aloft. Worry beads passed through fingers.

Argentinians had come to pray for their fallen angel of football. Diego Maradona, perhaps the best player ever, was fighting for his life in intensive care.

The player named by Fifa in 2000 as the greatest player of all time was rushed to the Swiss hospital in the Argentine capital with breathing difficulties and what his doctor described as a "swollen heart" and pulmonary infection.

His own medical staff denied reports that he had taken a cocaine overdose but, last night, Maradona was in intensive care, on a respirator, and sedated. His condition was described as critical: "He treads a thin line between life and death," Argentine newspapers informed a nervous nation.

Maradona, 43, fell ill at a traditional asado or barbeque after watching a match at La Bonbonera, the stadium of his former club Boca Juniors at the rough end of the city on Sunday night. Despite his enthusiasm for the match, he withdrew during the second half from the box he has rented for life.

His father, Diego, his ex-wife, Claudia, and his two teenage daughters, Dalma and Gianina were by his bedside. Doctors feared his heart would not be able to withstand the crisis.

In recent years, Maradona has been a pallid, grotesquely bloated figure - his health ravaged by cocaine abuse. But his personal doctor, Adolfo Cahe, denied that the footballer's condition was due to a cocaine overdose. His collapse "was nothing to do with his addictions, Dr Cahe said. "He hasn't been using cocaine recently."

Fans mounted a devoted vigil outside the clinic throughout yesterday, some draped in the blue-and-yellow colours of Boca Juniors, others carrying photographs of the nation's idol. "We love you Diego," they said.

They glued posters of their idol bearing El Diez - the Number 10 shirt - in his glorious prime to the walls of the hospital. Priests and tearful young women were among the crowds who reattached their posters and stickers to the walls no sooner had a hospital employee removed them. "Diego, Argentina loves you," and "Hold on, Diego," they said.

Police had to cordon off the hospital entrance and hold back the crowd on a busy boulevard in central Buenos Aires. Many Argentinians confessed to keeping the radio and television turned off for fear of what they might hear.

Despite his well-publicised addiction, Maradona has worldwide following of disciples. From Italy to Iceland, from Vietnam to Venezuela, they belong to the "Church of Maradona".

The one they worship suffered heart failure in January 2000 at the Uruguayan beach resort of Punta del Este, which is popular with wealthy Argentinians. He was treated in hospital for weeks for hypertension and an irregular heartbeat.

Since then, he has spent long periods in Cuba for drug rehabiliation treatment, during which time he dyed his ebony hair a screaming orange, and became acquainted with Fidel Castro. That time, he stepped back from an early grave but his broken health has never really recovered. His popularity, however, did not falter. His autobiography, I am Diego, published in Argentina in September 2000, became a national bestseller, shifting 125,000 copies in a week.

"God bless you, Maradona!" said a placard held up by one man outside the hospital in Buenos Aires yesterday. But for many, Maradona is God, and the crazed megalomania that marked his years of tragic decline suggest that he came to believe he was indeed divine. "Diego, today and for ever," they called yesterday, already bracing themselves to celebrate the football star's immortality.

Maradona's rags-to-riches streak was marked by drug abuse. He was suspended from the Italian league in 1991 for 15 months after testing positive for cocaine. Fifa suspended him in 1994 for 15 months for the same reason at the World Cup finals in the United States. He retired from the game in 1997, a physical wreck, aged 36.

Maradona's tumultuous career started in 1976. He swiftly scaled unparalleled heights of football genius, interrupted by humiliating plunges marked by drugs, bans and arrests.

After his meteoric rise to world stardom, fans watched with foreboding as he careered towards what a Buenos Aires psychology professor described as a downfall as inevitable as that of Diana, Princess of Wales. "When I think of Maradona, I imagine him driving in slow motion towards the same column as Lady Di," Professor Rodolfo Urribarri said.

After stints at Barcelona, Napoli and Seville, he returned to Argentina in 1993, and was welcomed back with open arms when he signed for the Rosario club Newell's Old Boys. They sacked him for missing training in 1994, the year when he opened gunfire on journalists outside his house. His final comeback, with Boca Juniors in 1997, was aborted by yet another failed drugs test.

Fame and football plucked the urchin from the Buenos Aires slums and brought him home physically and mentally broken, but for Argentinians today and for ever, as they say, he is their undisputed hero.

RISE AND FALL

1976: At 15, makes debut for Argentinos Juniors
1981: Wins Argentinian League with Boca Juniors
1982: Moves to Barcelona for £1.875m
1984: Joins Napoli for £4.68m (two league titles and Uefa Cup)
1986: Wins World Cup
1990: Loses World Cup final to Germany.
1991: Fails cocaine test, banned for 15 months
1994: Fires airgun at crowd of reporters at his home, wounding four
1996: Books into Swiss drugs clinic

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