Football: World Cup '94: Maradona in condition for an odyssey: After starring in his own soap opera, the most infamous player in the world returns to his natural stage tonight. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
DURING the World Cup's first week, the American public have been distracted by - some might say revelling in - the personal and professional disruption of its greatest gridiron hero. The O J Simpson saga has become a living 'soap' with real victims and echoes, for those who follow football played with the feet, of the sorry story of Diego Maradona.

Like Simpson, the former Buffalo Bills running back currently awaiting trial for the alleged murder of his ex-wife and a male friend, Maradona is acquainted with the descent from superstardom to skid row. Unique ability in their respective spheres enabled them to taste wealth and fame. Both later had problems with cocaine, and now each has experienced the humiliation of being taken into police custody.

But today, as Simpson sits in a Los Angeles police cell - under round-the-clock surveillance because of fears that he may commit suicide - the Argentinian's career as an international sportsman resumes in earnest on the opposite coast. At Foxboro Stadium, near Boston, Maradona will once again be the centre of attention as his country open their Group D campaign against Greece.

Whether or not his presence proves merely symbolic, a symptom of the dearth of quality of players available to Argentina, remains to be seen. However, one observer draws on bitter recent experience to assert that the 33-year-old Maradona retains the capacity to be a force in these finals. As the Scottish-born manager of Australia, Eddie Thomson, insisted yesterday: 'Anyone who writes him off could be making a big mistake.'

Thomson, who is in charge of Fifa's technical assessment unit in Chicago, steered the Socceroos to a play-off against Argentina for the 24th and last berth in the tournament. After a draw in Sydney, the South American champions won 1-0 in Buenos Aires and as Thomson recalled, 'the wee No 10' was all that separated the teams.

'Maradona looked different class. He seems to have the ability to get himself in condition for important games. I remember him coming to a press conference the day before the first game. We were wondering what condition he'd be in, but he was rippling with muscle.' The electrifying burst of pace Maradona shared with Simpson - which brought the 'other' goal in the victory over England at the 1986 finals - is no more. Playing in midfield, he now draws on his 17 years as an international to orchestrate Argentina's attacks.

'He slowed the game down or speeded things up as required,' Thomson said. 'He also got them free when they needed them. Any time they were under pressure, he'd take charge. My assistant, Raul Branco, is Argentinian and he told me what Maradona was shouting to the other players. It was like having a coach on the pitch.

'You're not going to see him running like he did in the Eighties, but he's still got the speed over 10 metres and he's an outstanding passer of the ball. With the heat we're having in the States, the games are going to be that much slower, which should suit Maradona.

'I've been talking to the Argentinian press and they tell me that while the rest of the team have been playing practice games, Maradona has been building up sensibly, working on little shuttle runs. That would indicate to me that we'll get him at his best in spells of perhaps 10 minutes at a time. Believe me, though, that can still make him a very influential player.'

After the victory over Australia, doubts over whether Maradona would make it to his fourth finals resurfaced. Earlier this year he used an air-gun to disperse reporters camped outside his house, near the Argentinian capital. Police confiscated his passport following complaints by the pellets' victims, while his club, Newell's Old Boys, announced a parting of the ways.

It looked like the end for the Most Fouled Player of Italia '90. But remembering that without Maradona, Argentina had crashed 5-0 at home to Colombia, his coach, Alfio Basile, persevered with him. Even though he comes into the match against Greece with 'no club' after his name, Maradona will be expected to supply the ammunition for Balbo, Batistuta and Caniggia.

In April this year, Maradona scored in a 3-1 win over Morocco. Afterwards, demonstrating the knack of conjuring a cute phrase which gave us 'the hand of God', he announced: 'Whenever I pull on the Argentinian shirt, I feel the same joy that runs through me when I kiss my daughters.'

Unnatural talent. Drugs. Prison. The psychobabble of trial by action replay, chat show and phone-in. His children. The parallels with the Simpson case go on. Neither the Greeks nor Peter Shilton will share the feeling, and Americans may not understand it, but the rest of the world will be hoping against hope for a happy ending to Diego Maradona's mercurial odyssey.

ARGENTINA: Islas (Independiente); Sensini (Parma), Caceres (Real Zaragoza), Ruggeri (San Lorenzo), Chamot (Foggia); Simeone (Seville), Redondo (Real Madrid), Maradona (no club), Balbo (Roma); Caniggia (Roma), Batistuta (Fiorentina).

GREECE: Minou (Apollon); Manolas (AEK Athens); Apostolakis (Panathinaikos), Kalitzakis (Panathinaikos), Kolitsidakis (Panathinaikos); Hatzidis (Olympiakos), Tsalouhidis (Olympiakos), Nioplias (Panathinaikos), Kofides (Aris Salonika), Tsiantakis (Olympiakos); Machlas (OFI Crete).

Referee: A Angeles (US).

(Photograph omitted)