Thursday evening in the Cotton Bowl was to have been Maradona's record-breaking 22nd match in the finals of the World Cup. Instead he watched Argentina's 2-0 defeat by Bulgaria in a hotel room in downtown Dallas, emerging only briefly afterwards to tell the waiting press pack: 'That was not the real Argentina out there.'
Asked whether he had taken drugs, Maradona shook his head and said he did not need stimulants. He was clearly emotional, veering between tears and defiance as he gave his reaction to his expulsion from the squad. The Argentinian FA withdrew him following the discovery of proscribed drugs in a urine sample taken after last Saturday's 2-1 victory over Nigeria.
'I suffered a lot alone in my room, but I promised my daughters that I wouldn't cry, and I won't,' he said. 'To those who have condemned me without letting me defend myself, I say that they not only took away the happiness of Maradona but of many who love me.'
'They' are Fifa. Hours before the game with Bulgaria, football's governing body announced details of a second analysis of the sample taken from Maradona as part of the random doping controls. It revealed what Fifa's medical expert described as a 'cocktail' of banned substances, all related to ephedrine, a drug normally taken to relieve asthma, colds or sinus problems but also found in weight- reducing medications. Maradona lost 26 pounds in three months
before the tournament.
In his first response to the findings, Maradona appeared to be advancing a conspiracy theory (and where better to do it than Dallas, where every taxi-driver will tell you who was really behind the assassination of JFK). 'Fifa beat me over the head without any compunction,' Maradona claimed. 'They have retired me from soccer. There is a nation behind it, but they must not forget that we Argentinians live by football.'
His media compatriots were in no doubt that Maradona was alluding to Brazil, and specifically to Joao Havelange, the Brazilian president of Fifa. Havelange has spoken of his 'great sadness' over the positive drug test, saying that he prayed for a different result but adding: 'We cannot lie and medical facts do not lie.'
Fifa's drug-sampling procedure would not easily facilitate a Machiavellian plot against any one player. Slips of paper bearing the shirt numbers of every member of each team are put into two bags. Before the game, the Fifa 'doping doctor' draws out two slips from each bag in the presence of the Fifa commissioner and a representative of both teams.
The numbers are not looked at, but placed in a sealed envelope until 15 minutes from the end of the match when it is opened in front of the same team officials. They are then asked to bring the appropriate individuals to a test room, and it was there, in Boston's Foxboro Stadium, that Maradona's urine sample condemned him to an ignominious exit.
Without him, Argentina looked to be ambling to the draw which would have guaranteed their advance to the knock-out phase as Group D winners. On the hour, however, Hristo Stoichkov scored the kind of goal that has made him as feared in Spain as his Barcelona partner, Brazil's Romario.
That blow, and the sending-off of Bulgaria's Tsanko Zvetanov six minutes later, finally stirred Argentina. Bulgaria stood firm, Nasko Sirakov headed a second in time added on, and another late goal, by Nigeria against Greece, meant that Argentina suddenly dropped to third place.
Bulgaria thus qualified to meet Mexico in New Jersey on Tuesday. Argentina, who had anticipated a leisurely build-up to a match in Boston the same day, were instead forced to fly to Los Angeles yesterday and will have only today in which to prepare for the confrontation with a more rested
Romanian side tomorrow.
Alfio Basile, their coach, seemed confused by it all, suggesting at first that the result did not affect Argentina's chances of reaching the final, but adding: 'Our spirits were low, which was apparent on the pitch, and of course we missed Maradona. He's a great player, the leader of our team. All I will say is we love him and we always will.'
ARGENTINA (4-4-2): Islas (Independiente); Diaz (River Plate), Caceres (Real Zaragoza), Ruggeri (San Lorenzo), Chamot (Foggia); Balbo (Roma), Rodriguez (Atalanta), Redondo (Real Madrid), Simeone (Seville); Batistuta (Fiorentina), Caniggia (Roma). Substitutes: Ortega (River Plate) for Caniggia, 25; Medina Bello (Yokohama Marinos) for Rodriguez, 67.
BULGARIA (4-4-2): Mikhailov (Mulhouse); Kremenliev (Levski Sofia), Hubchev (Levski Sofia), Ivanov (Neuchatel Xamax), Zvetanov (Levski Sofia); Lechkov (Hamburg), Yankov (Levski Sofia), Sirakov (Levski Sofia), Balakov (Sporting Lisbon); Kostadinov (Porto), Stoichkov (Barcelona). Substitutes: Kiryakov (Lerida) for Kostadinov, 73; Borimirov (Levski Sofia) for Lechkov, 76.
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