Football: End of the dream for Maradona

Phil Davison in Buenos Aires finds the Boca Juniors love affair is turning sour
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The Independent Online
Diego Armando Maradona is not used to having six goals knocked in against his side. It's about as rare as his appearances at training.

It happened at the weekend, though, as Boca Juniors went down 6-4 to Racing Club in a vital league match that could end Boca's title hopes. The result knocked Boca off the top of the table, a point behind Velez Sarsfield with two games to play, and threatened to end the honeymoon between Maradona and the Boca fans.

For the first time, a few Boca fans joined in the rival supporters' taunts of "Maradona, your mother's shell" - a vulgar anatomical reference in Spanish - in the club's Bombonera stadium on Sunday night. Bombonera means box of sweets, but the atmosphere quickly turned sour as 60,000 fans saw their team defeated in the 10-goal match.

"Symbol of Boca," was the headline in the daily La Nacion yesterday, next to a picture of a dejected Maradona. "He didn't train all week. He said he had flu, but he was well enough to attend a barbecue," the paper reported.

Since his return to Boca in September at the end of a 15-month ban for failing a dope test at last year's World Cup, the little man has not been out of the headlines. The working-class club from the Buenos Aires docks where the tango was born came up with some $8m (pounds 5.3m) for a 30- month contract. "God has given me to Boca," he said.

At the same time, they signed Maradona's international partner Claudio Caniggia, another player with a former cocaine problem, to form the "dream team". Despite Maradona's continued absence from training, things were going reasonably well until just before kick-off on Sunday night. Boca had even voted in a new chairman minutes earlier, the motor industry mogul Mauricio Macri, who was expected to bring more sponsorship and more success next season.

But while Boca's captain, recently turned 35, was overweight, weary and lazy, a hungry Racing Club, themselves in third place in the league and still with a shot at the title, went on the rampage. Despite scoring a consolation penalty, for the dream team's captain it was a nightmare.

"We knew deep down we were letting the championship slip away," he said after the match. "Today, we surrendered the championship, but we will keep the faith."

Faith? More and more Boca fans are expressing the view that Maradona's latest hairstyle represents just what it looks like - a yellow streak. It was supposed to parallel the yellow stripe across Boca's blue jersey. Legend has it the club chose the colours when someone saw the flag on a Swedish freighter docked in Boca harbour at the beginning of the century.

Maradona has gone missing several times in the last few months. "Donde est Diego?" (Where is Diego?) is perhaps the most common newspaper headline in Argentina. The last time - last month - he claimed he was depressed over the death of Sebastian Passarella, the teenage son of his former international team-mate and current Argentina manager, Daniel Passarella, in a car accident.

Inevitably, rumours are rife that he has returned to cocaine, which got him suspended while playing for Napoli in 1991 and arrested in Buenos Aires the following year. Until Sunday, Boca fans had given him the benefit of the doubt, hoping that magnetic left foot could do just enough to bring them only their second championship since a young Maradona helped them win it in 1981.

As he continued to gain weight this year - "the ball's the one that keeps moving and doesn't have No 10 written on it," goes a local joke - he had a face-lift, or jowl-trim as he preferred to put it, because: "I want to look good for my wife."

She, the peroxide blonde Claudia who has stood by him through thick and thicker, reciprocated with a breast implant, leading Diego to tell reporters: "Sus lolas son barbaras" (her tits are fantastic).

Tubby and unfit though he is, he still has the magic. It just comes in less frequent doses. A few days before the Racing Club game, I watched him against arch-rivals River Plate, in what they call the Super- Derby, at River's Monumental Stadium where Argentina won the dramatic 1978 World Cup final.

The atmosphere was almost as electric as in 1978, this time with River's red and white colours dominating as bombs, crackers, flares and sparklers went off and ticker tape and toilet rolls blocked out the sky.

The little man still had the ability to drift past three men without looking down at the ball, to the cheers of los bosteros (the pigshits), as Boca's fans call themselves to distinguish themselves from River's middle-class support. And he almost scored with a 40-yard shot from close to the touchline with the goalkeeper off his line.

Most of their fans still hope Maradona can pull it off for Boca over the next two vital games. Their biggest fan, 60-year-old Jose Barrita, head of their fan club and known as el abuelo (the grandfather), will be watching on television. He is currently in jail in connection with the murder of two River fans near the Boca stadium.