Football / World Cup USA '94: A god felled by his own hand: Ian Ridley traces the steps that led to the exit of a player of substance

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The Independent Online
'I like to feel I am a leader. I like to feel responsible, more responsible than anyone else. I don't know if it's selfishness or love but when I get on to a field I feel I have a duty to give and suffer more than anyone else. I have learned from football that love is not only very close to passion but also to suffering.'

THE WORDS belong to Diego Armando Maradona, spoken at his zenith after he had lifted Argentina to their World Cup win of 1986; at a time when the urchin from the shanty town of Villa Fiorito in the suburbs of Buenos Aires was dragging ragamuffin Napoli towards two Italian championships, their only ones. Now the love is lost, the passion spent. But the suffering goes on.

Dallas has had matters of human tragedy in perspective for 31 years now and Maradona's expulsion from the World Cup for the use of medication containing ephedrine and four other banned compounds that can act to stimulate both nervous system and weight loss is, rather, mere folly.

Those with a passion for watching the game that matches Maradona's passion for playing it, however, will long remember where they were, and those being barbecued in the 100-degree heat of the Texan city will recall the coldness that gripped them when they heard the news. Say it ain't so, Diego.

Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards Maradona have always been ambivalent, embodied in his two goals that beat England in the 1986 World Cup quarter- final. The sleight of hand for the first drew approbation, the sleight of foot for the second admiration.

The problem was glimpsed in that 45 minutes of football: Maradona's gift has also been his curse. His prodigious talent has earned forgiveness too swiftly, enabling the man-child to be indulged. The game's governing body, Fifa, clearly had to act on the evidence of his urine sample, but they did so with the heavy heart that ailed us all.

For though there was a duty to condemn, it was also an affair to sadden. 'Dirty Diego cheats again' does not suffice. As the mind cleared at the end of a confusing day on Thursday that spilled into Friday and more details were revealed, the finger pointed to Maradona's personal doctor and dietician, Daniel Cerrini. He had, it emerged, administered two medicines obtained in Argentina to ease nasal congestion and an allergy.

Ignorance on the part of a man manipulated can never be defence, only mitigation. The case is, however, the latest in a litany of examples of Maradona volunteering for the gallows. The dope was duped. Again. Agents and acolytes, clubs in need of revenue and glamour, the organised-crime bosses of the Camorra of southern Italy, providing him with whores and cocaine, have all sought their slice. Now little, perhaps nothing, is left.

ON SATURDAY night a week ago, Diego Maradona was jabbing the air at Argentina's expert 2-1 victory over Nigeria, in which he had initiated both goals. It topped even his performance in the 4-0 win over Greece, which saw him score and run joyously, even manically, to a television camera.

Then, just as he was about to make for the dressing-rooms of Foxboro Stadium, near Boston, a member of the Green Cross medical staff moved to escort him to the doping test room. His number, the famous 10, had come up.

In line with Fifa regulations, the numbers of two of the 22 squad members - one participating, one a substitute - were drawn by lot at half-time by a 'doping doctor,' J M Ferret. One official from each team observed as the numbers were placed in an envelope. Fifteen minutes from the end of the match, the envelope was opened and the numbers examined by the same personnel.

Also routinely, five minutes before the final whistle, the forms requesting the numbers were taken to the Argentine doctor, Ernesto Ugalde, and his Nigerian opposite number, who signed a form confirming receipt. Dr Ugalde had made no mention of Maradona on a separate form provided before the game to detail any medication taken by players. He was later to say he was unaware of it.

Maradona and Sergio Vasquez were the two Argentines required to urinate into separate beakers, the contents of which were then divided into two bottles per player and sealed for delivery to Fifa's laboratory in Los Angeles.

It did not take Maradona long to provide a sample, nothing like the two and a half hours, and seven litres of water, of Sweden's Jonas Thern or the three hours of the Republic of Ireland's Tommy Coyne after other matches. Within half an hour, Maradona was at a press conference, smiling and saying that he was overwhelmed at all the goodwill towards him and that he was fitter than he expected to be at this stage. He had had to lose 13lb before the tournament, his 5ft 6in frame now carrying 11 stones.

His mood was equally relaxed at training in New England on the Monday and again on Tuesday when he sauntered across to a group of journalists, carrying his young daughter Giannina, and said that he had just run 20 kilometres and was looking forward to Thursday's match against Bulgaria as his deliverance day.

On Wednesday, the team flew to Dallas and little looked amiss as Maradona walked the pitch of the Cotton Bowl in the early evening with the team. There were to be no interviews, however, the first sign that something was indeed wrong.

Fifa had received notice of a positive test within 24 hours of the specimen's receipt and were quick to inform the president of the Argentine Football Association, Julio Grondola. He then exercised a right to a second test, on the second bottle, also in LA but conducted by different technicians.

The result was confirmed in the early hours of Thursday morning and Grondola told Maradona, at about the same time that Fifa's heirarchy of president, Joao Havelange, its secretary-general, Sepp Blatter, and the Scot, David Will, senior vice-president in charge of disciplinary matters, were woken up to have their fears confirmed.

At a chaotic press conference some 10 hours later in the swish Four Seasons Hotel in the Dallas suburb of Las Colinas, after a 10-man Fifa committee had deliberated for an hour, they seemed genuinely disturbed at the outcome, and especially that it had been Maradona involved.

In sombre tones, Blatter announced that the Argentine FA had withdrawn Maradona - thus jumping before they were pushed - and that the punishment was in line with the sending home of Scotland's Willie Johnston for taking a similar substance in Argentina in 1978. As then, when Johnston was subsequently banned from international football, the case would be reviewed after the World Cup.

There was a sharp collective intake of breath as Fifa's medical expert Dr Michel D'Hooghe spoke. He concluded, at odds with the player's account, that Maradona had taken a 'cocktail' of five drugs, which were not to be found simply in over- the-counter medicines. They were ephedrine, norephedrine, pseudoephedrine, norpseudoephedrine and methephedrine and, yes, he said, they could aid weight loss and there was no doubt they could be used to enhance performance.

Blatter was more concerned with human rather than pharmacological theories. 'It is a human, moral problem, not just a doping problem,' he said. Havelange, coming late to the proceedings after flying in from Washington, echoed him: 'I was always praying that the result would be different. I love all these players like they were my children. It saddens us very much because Maradona has been such a great star for soccer but this is for the good of maintaining fair play and justice.'

Back at the team's Sheraton Park hotel in North Dallas, the lobby was crammed with bemused fans. Hector Baez and his sister Diana, rock musicians exiled in LA, had driven through the night for the game against Bulgaria only to be confronted with the news when they checked in at 5.30am.

'There are always problems with Maradona,' Hector said. 'Why? Because people envy him.' Added Diana: 'There's no fan saying anything bad about Diego.'

Maradona remained in his room, granting an interview only to Argentina's Channel 13, with whom he had a contract. 'I did not take drugs,' he said tearfully. 'I would not let down those who love me. I hope the boys can go on to show that Argentina goes on living after Maradona. Fifa beat me over the head and it hurts me deeply. We Argentines live by football.'

Later, 15 minutes after seeing his country beaten 2-0 by Bulgaria, he held court for five minutes in an ante-room of the Sheraton Park lobby for about a dozen Argentine reporters who had missed the game to stay on the Maradona beat.

He reiterated his innocence but added this time, significantly, that he had taken medication only on advice but needed no stimulation to play. He hopes to play again - he claims to have had offers from Napoli and Bolivar of Bolivia. He would be considering his future after rejoining his wife Claudia and daughters Dalma and Giannina in Boston before flying to Buenos Aires. It was a forlorn end to a fateful day.

AS INSECTS to flypaper are Argentina to controversy. Just when the world was beginning to applaud them for a surprising adventure to add to traditional canniness against Greece and Nigeria, and to speak of their rehabilitation after the disgrace of Italia '90, examination of their integrity returns.

The world, too, was mostly delighted by Maradona's rejuvenation, after a 16-month ban for cocaine use and rejection by the Newell's Old Boys club. He may not have had the pace which once enabled him to cover 30 metres in 3.8 seconds but that left foot could still seek out any defence's weak spot.

At 17, the nation's prodigy was deemed too young by Cesar Luis Menotti in 1978; now it had seemed he was too old at 33. But he had got himself fit for one last tilt at the windmill - with chemical help, it now appears.

Thursday night's match would have seen him set a World Cup finals record of 22 appearances. But on the team sheet all reference to No 10 had been removed. The announcer seemed insensitive in reading the team list and pausing after 'Diego' before adding 'Simeone.'

In his absence, the Argentine fans did their best to lift the team at the Cotton Bowl with their traditional welcome of streamers and torn-up paper. 'Gracias Diego, Genio,' said one banner. Mostly, though, they were flat, which the team, half-hearted but fully baked in the heat, reflected. Maradona's replacement, Leonardo Rodriguez, wore No 20 but was half the player. The thought occurred that Argentina were playing cutely to lose by one goal and meet Mexico in New York. If so, they cut it too fine, late goals by Nigeria and Bulgaria conspiring to send them to Los Angeles for Romania today.

Perhaps the siege mentality that has served them so well in the past will return. Perhaps Fernando Redondo will assume the mantle his midfield passing skills have promised. Of more concern to them, ultimately, may be the pulled muscle of Claudio Caniggia. Still, this day had drained them.

'Maradona is an essential player in our team so we missed him very much both on and off the field,' said the Argentina coach Alfio Basile at the Cotton Bowl at about the same time as Maradona was preparing to fly away and Simeone and Ariel Ortega were this time taking drug tests; at about the same time as the first of 14 Argentine fans was being arrested following a scuffle.

'It was of great impact for the team. It took our spirit and morale. We all love him very much but we have to go on,' Basile went on. The players, said a Fifa press officer, were too 'shell-shocked to speak.' A day that had begun in clamour was ending in wearied silence.

There is a belief in journalism that you should always follow the best; that they always give you a story. But while the professional in us relished the potency and poignancy in the tale of the fallen idol, the human being in us was left to lament the spiritual cost of it all.

How much of the riches of a man who once earned pounds 2m a year with Napoli and commanded transfer fees totalling pounds 16m remain is not known. One can only hope that Diego Maradona finally receives the right help from the right people before some shanty town of the soul reclaims the urchin.

(Photograph omitted)

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