Football / World Cup USA '94: Shame of a nation: Compatriots cry for flawed genius: Anger and exasperation greet a hero's fall. Jeremy Hart reports from Villa Carlos Paz

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The Independent Online
THE CATTLE farmers and steak restaurateurs of Villa Carlos Paz, a dusty lakeside town in the heart of Argentina's beef belt, remember the pain of positive dope testing in football all too well. The last time a player was banished from the World Cup, he was a temporary resident of the crime-free and foreigner-friendly town.

Not that the name Willie Johnston turns the incessant prairie winds that blow through the town where Scotland made their home for the 1978 World Cup any chillier. Sixteen years after making history as only the second player to succumb to a post-match drugs spot check, Johnston's name is no legend in Villa Carlos Paz or anywhere else in Argentina.

The hoteliers remember the Scots with affection. 'They were nice and friendly,' recalled Mariel Werkmeister, in 1978 a translator for the Scottish and German squads based in the town for their nearby games at the Estadio Cordoba. Senora Werkmeister was unaware of Willie Johnston's record.

With Diego Maradona taking over Johnston's mantle as football's outcast, she, like every other Argentine on Thursday, could think of nothing else but a man who has shamed a nation and this time will not escape the wrath of millions of humiliated Argentines.

'He is ill, sick, infermo,' screamed Leda Temperini, like millions of other Argentine women, football mad. 'He may be the best but what good is he if he gets banned. He should be locked up.'

Television and radio programmes across the country were interrupted by newsflashes breaking the news from Dallas to millions of bewildered Argentines. Normal programmes were rescheduled to allow for hour after hour of debate and dissection.

Newspapers had virtually no other story for their readers on Friday morning, the tale of Maradona's woe covering acres of newsprint the length of this enormous Latin American country.

The Buenos Aires paper La Prensa said: 'Maradona will never show his magic again in blue and white. The biggest soccer star of modern time slammed the door on his sporting life, leaving the rest of us in a fog of scandal.'

La Nacion ventured a little further: 'The eyes of the world are looking on us as they were during the Falklands War,' it said. Neither paper, however, included an editorial comment on the affair.

Back in Villa Carlos Paz a ghost town had sprung up in the space of 90 minutes. A lone bus driver cruised the windy streets with only an old woman passenger between him and a reason to park up and watch the match against Bulgaria.

Bathed in the Argentine blue neon of the City Game amusement arcade, a crowd of 50 teenagers stood on the pavement huddled against the cold winter night, their eyes fixed on two huge screens while their bodies shivered. Two telespectators had painted their faces in the blue and white of their national flag. One boy used a flag to keep warm. 'Viva Argentina', they all screamed the minute Rodriguez or Caniggia touched the ball. This was the exorcism.

In El Teatro, the mood was sombre, the air thick with cheap cigarette smoke, strong coffee and beer. None of the cafe crowd was younger than 20. Each pass, each flick, was analysed with more depth than a planet full of Don Howes and Alan Hansens. This was the wake.

On the street, 13-year-old Joel Rosso felt optimistic by half-time. 'The team is even good without Maradona,' he said. School stops in Villa Carlos Paz when Argentina play. 'Everyone at school likes him. He can do anything with the ball.'

Christobal Roberts was less convinced, watching among the town's gentry. 'He plays beautifully, everyone can see. But he is bad for Argentina,' Roberts said. 'When people think Argentina football, they think Maradona. If Maradona is stopped for taking drugs, then people will think that about all Argentinian footballers.'

Split by passion, love and loathing for the world's greatest living player, Argentina is a nation of divided families and friends, unable to agree on the greatest single national crisis since the Falklands.

'People have been crying in the streets,' Mariel Werkmeister said. 'I have seen them. When we heard the news on the radio we were shocked. Everyone agrees he is a beautiful player, but no one can agree on what to do with him. When Japan refused him a visa the team refused to play there. Now they can't wait to get rid of him so they don't suffer at the World Cup. There is no consistency,' she said.

After 16 minutes of the second half of the match against Bulgaria, Villa Carlos Paz (and probably all Argentina) became united, in misery. Already the fans on the street and in the cafe had breathed again after the disallowed first-half goal, but there was no fluttering linesman's flag to save them this time.

A lone hunting horn wailed through the streets of Villa Carlos Paz. The wailing of human misery followed. 'Maradona, Maradona,' the teenagers chanted. The team they were watching being whipped seemed rudderless. 'If he was there, they would be winning,' Joel Rosso lamented.