Football / World Cup USA '94: Argentina must kick Maradona habit: DOWNFALL OF A HERO: Doors close on Argentina's errant World Cup inspiration. Phil Shaw reports

Click to follow
BY taking the proscribed anti-asthma drug, ephedrine - and four other related substances - Diego Maradona displayed, at best, poor judgement and at worst contempt for the world game's ruling body, Fifa, not to mention his adoring public in Argentina.

Even allowing for his tendency to cheat, which England fans know only too well, football lovers will hope it was the former. But Maradona's 'previous' meant he was never likely to receive the benefit of any doubt.

Little more than three years ago, when his career with Napoli was in a downward spiral, Maradona tested positive for cocaine. A month later he was arrested at home in Buenos Aires and charged with drug possession and trafficking. Both the United States and Japan have refused him entry in recent years.

From Fifa he received a 15- month ban; from the courts a 12-month suspended prison sentence. Upon returning to the game, stockier and slower than the player who scored six goals during the 1986 finals in Mexico, he had strife-torn spells with Seville, of Spain, and Newell's Old Boys in his home country.

It was only the abject state of the national side that brought him back to the world's stage. Argentina were in transition from the grudging and cynical football favoured by Carlos Bilardo to the more positive approach ushered in by Alfio Basile, which utilises the burgeoning talents of Redondo, Batistuta, Balbo and Chamot.

Basile was evidently reluctant to go back to the 33-year old Maradona, but a 5-0 home defeat by Colombia so traumatised the nation that the clamour for Maradona, as a symbol of past glories, became irresistible.

Doubts about his condition persisted up until Argentina's opening match against Greece. Yet he made a triumphant comeback - less dynamic, certainly, but slimmer, and compensating for his lack of mobility with laser-like passing. Of 38 passes he made, 32 found a colleague and he scored a vintage goal to boot.

Now, instead of possibly looking forward to his third final, he is set to share the fate of Willie Johnston, the Scotland winger who failed a dope test after the 1978 debacle against Peru. Johnston protests to this day that the pills he took - a proscribed substance called Fencamfamin - were to treat hayfever.

Whatever the truth, he was sent home in disgrace, suspended from international football for two years and never played for Scotland again.

A Haitian player, Ernest Jean-Joseph, had also tested positive in the 1974 finals. He was hustled away by government agents, left Germany a sobbing, broken man under guard and, once home, reportedly disappeared without trace.

The reaction of the Argentinian people to Maradona will be fascinating to observe. In the two matches he played, his country's supporters held up life-size cut-outs of him and raised a giant banner bearing the slogan 'Pele will always be king, but Diego is a God'.

Pele has been a highly visible figure here, an advertising opportunity on legs. Maradona, arguably the only player of his generation blessed with comparable ability, would have been the obvious choice to do for the proposed Major League Soccer in America what the great Brazilian did for the NASL in the 1970s. That lucrative avenue, like other offersmay have been closed off.

The irony was that had he played in yesterday's game against Bulgaria, Maradona would have had to himself the record for appearances in the World Cup's final stages. Instead, he is likely to remain forever on 21, a mark he shares with Uwe Seeler and Wladislaw Zmuda, his place in history assured as much by the scandals as the skills.

It seems implausible that Maradona would have knowingly risked the reputation he had worked so hard to rebuild. However, as Willie Johnston found out, Fifa is not for turning. The Argentinians, meanwhile, will doubtless sense conspiracy and persecution, but if they keep their eyes on the prize, they have the class - particularly in the shape of Fernando Redondo - to prosper without their mainstay of 17 years.

Sadly, perhaps unjustly, in the interests of the team he leaves behind, it may finally be time for Argentina to kick the Diego Maradona habit.

(Photograph omitted)