Diego's gift to Korea move

Derrick Whyte in Seoul watches as another player returns from disgrace
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The Independent Online
NO ONE packs them in like Diego Armando Maradona. That was the Korean theory and that was how it turned out here in the Olympic stadium yesterday. More than 70,000 Koreans plus a media pack from all over the world came to witness his first appearance since his dope-test disgrace at the 1994 World Cup finals.

The fact that Boca Juniors, whom he has rejoined after 14 years of international achievement and notoriety, won the match 2-1 was immaterial. The occasion was more important - and it was Maradona's presence which created that occasion.

The Korean football authorities knew it was a gamble. Maradona's unreliability is notorious. Twice he has been banned from football for a year or more for failing dope tests. In his last year at Napoli and, later, at Sevilla, his team-mates would often see him only on match-days. He has lived life by his rules - partying with the mafia bosses in Naples, firing an airgun at journalists blocking his front gate, insulting anyone on whom his paranoid gaze has rested in defeat, whether club chairmen or Fifa presidents.

So far he seems to get on tolerably well with Argentina's President Carlos Menem, who was here for the show, negotiate a trade deal with Korea and join Korea's President Kim Young-sam in kicking off the match.

Korea's bid to host the 2002 World Cup is a trade deal of another dimension. The Bid Committee estimates that victory over Japan in this race, to be decided next June by Fifa, will be worth $7.5bn in export earnings. By comparison, the rumoured $1.7m it cost to bring Maradona and his circus to town is a mere drop in the ocean.

Maradona was expected to stage a coaching skills demonstration for 3,000 children, to attend promotional receptions, to visit a car plant owned by the unofficial bid sponsors, Hyundai. He cancelled all the dates. In training he harangued his team-mates incessantly. In his hotels he astonished staff with food-throwing tantrums and shouting.

Maradona is football's ultimate anti-hero. At 34 he carries too many years and too much weight to be the great player again. Long before the end of the first half he was puffing and blowing. It was enough for him to raise a trot, never mind a sprint. In the second half he vanished for a full 20 minutes.

And yet . . . his touch, his timing, his innate sense of the flow of a match, of the positioning of his team-mates, the sensitivity with which his left foot caresses the ball - all of it remains a joy to behold and cannot help but raise wonder and envy in the heart of anyone who has ever played the game.

It was 12 minutes before Maradona produced anything more than the occasional stabbed pass or shoulder shrug. In space on the right, a defender at his back, he swerved 180 degrees, maintaining possession and curled in a far- post cross which the unmarked Caniggia headed softly into the arms of goalkeeper Kim Byung Ge.

Five minutes later Maradona, shaping to volley an angled shot, produced instead a delicate lob over a defender's head and Kim leapt to his left to punch away the ensuing shot from Carlos MacAllister. But then a vintage back-heel from Maradona led to a corner which he placed deftly on to the head of MacAllister at the near post: 1-0.

Korea equalised through their outstanding playmaker, Ha Seok Ju, almost on the stroke on the half-time. Encouraged, they dominated in the second half. Maradona, after a brief flurry of creative activity, sat back in disgust once a gloriously deceptive pass had provided an opening which Caniggia squandered.

In the 84th minute Maradona's first shot of the match flew safely over the Korean bar. It was also his last shot. Three minutes later he was substituted to a smattering of polite applause. it was ironic that Boca won the game in his absence, with a 40-yard lob, on the breakaway, from Sergio Alzuri.