Diego's resurrection: how an obese addict became a football man again

A year ago he nearly died. Now Diego Maradona is back and helping the national team. Neil Clack reports from Buenos Aires

"He's ill. This a battle, the biggest match of his whole life," Jose Luis Brown, one of Maradona's World Cup winning team-mates, told me two years ago. "But those of us who know him well, his true friends, we know he can do it because Maradona is the most determined man you're ever likely to meet. He can beat this terrible illness by sheer will-power alone."

Brown calls his conservatory "a museum of football", but really it is a museum of Maradona. Though he played alongside Maradona, and scored a goal of his own in the 1986 final, Brown is still in awe. "He was our captain and leader, an example to us all, on and off the pitch. An inspiration - the most disciplined and focused player you can imagine before all his problems began."

Brown's words may have appeared wildly optimistic as Maradona seemed to be racing towards an early grave. But today, as Argentina prepare to play England (the foe against whom Maradona produced one of his most memorable displays), he is, at 45, a changed man. Svelte, drug-free and the host of a prime-time television programme, his latest comeback is perhaps the most remarkable achievement of an extraordinary life.

That life, of course, was blighted by his addiction to cocaine, which began at 22. In fact, away from drugs he is intelligent and extremely articulate. It was his power of speech, as much as his football skills, that elevated him to almost dangerous levels of idolatory status in South America.

He speaks in parables, using shanty town slang, always defending the poor. "The people respect me because I never got married to power," Maradona said in a recent interview, "and because I always come up with a surprise." Sales of the video of Maradona's best 100 goals are good in Buenos Aires but the book of his 1,000 greatest phrases sells just as well. "The Pope's a good bloke," Maradona says, "but they wanna get rid of all that gold from the ceiling of the Vatican and give it to the poor."

The most striking aspect of the new Maradona is his appearance: a year ago he weighed nearly 19st; today he is a little over 11st, his weight at the 1990 World Cup. He is a remarkable advert for the gastric by-pass operation that involves shrinking the stomach by stapling it together so it rejects pizza and steak and chips, which formed the basis of the old Maradona's diet.

His personal doctor and dietician, Alfredo Cahe, details his daily consumption: "Tea and coffee for breakfast with small biscuits of water and jelly, then for lunch and dinner it's fish or chicken with steamed vegetables. The important thing is he eats frequently but in small portions. He's good because he's got great will-power and also the support of his family. It's no miracle".

His TV show, La Noche De 10 ("the night of the No 10"), is a two-hour extravaganza in which he sings, dances, impersonates, ball-juggles and talks about himself. There is also a lot of hugging, and every week there will be tears streaming down his face. His interview with Pele was particularly poignant. The two greatest players of all time, sat together for half an hour, chatting about football, poverty and cocaine. They have not always seen eye to eye, though differences were always exaggerated by the media - the left-wing activist from an Argentinian shanty town falling out with the right-wing, staunch Catholic, businessman from a Brazilian shanty town.

Pele has long attacked drug use, including Maradona's, but now, after his own marital breakdown, and, with his drug-addicted son in prison for trafficking and homicide, he is more sympathetic. "I was nearly dead you know" Maradona told Pele, desperately struggling to hold back the tears, "it was only my daughters, the love of my daughters, that saved me."

"I know, I know," Pele replied, "and now Diego, you and me, we have got to work together to prevent this terrible illness spreading. You and me, Diego, we can do great things together."

The most honest interview of all, though, was the one Maradona where interviewed himself: the suave TV presenter, in a shiny silver suit, interviewing an unshaven Diego, speaking in the argot of the shanty town. "When was the last time you took drugs?" the presenter asks. "You know very well," his guest replies. "We did it together, a year and a half ago. That was the last time. We haven't taken drugs for a year and a half. We're clean."

But, Maradona added, he still considered himself a drug addict, and relied heavily on the love of his daughters and his ex-wife Claudia, who is actually the producer of the programme.

He lives with his parents. "I spend all day at home and never go out. I've got a TV in my room and I watch every match, first division, second division, third and fourth, and all the basketball. But it's not easy being me, my recuperation isn't overnight. The ghost of the drug still follows me. It's only the love of my daughters that has got me through it. They were both crying, saying, 'Daddy you can't die, we're too young'. And when I was alone in my room I was crying so much I almost had blood coming out of my eyes. I left the house for shame, embarrassed my daughters and wife saw me like that."

In a strange way, after everything he's been through, Maradona is probably more popular now than ever. Not as a hero any more, as someone more ordinary, with some serious problems - who made a complete mess of everything but is trying his best to make up for it. In the end he has become an example to depressives and addicts that these illnesses can be beaten, though the new humble Maradona is not getting too carried away. "I was able to buy the best treatment and I had to go out of the country get it but, sadly, in Argentina we don't have the rehabilitation facilities I was able to receive."

Much of that treatment was in Cuba and perhaps Maradona's most remarkable interview was with Fidel Castro, which coincided with George Bush's visit to Argentina for the American summit in Mar del Plata. Soon afterwards, Maradona led the demonstrations. The protest train left Buenos Aires at midnight to a tumultous send- off, with Maradona waving from the first carriage, wearing a T-shirt of Bush with the words "War Criminal" emblazoned underneath.

The next day Maradona stood with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as he addressed 40,000. With Maradona constantly on the phone to Castro, he led the chants of "Viva Che Guevara". "It's about our dignity as a country" Maradona told the masses. "We don't want Bush here and we want to throw him out."

Amazingly, his comeback even includes football. On Sunday he is expected to play in a testimonial for the veteran Brazilian defender Julio Cesar in Dortmund. He has also become involved in the national team, in a nebulous role, that has been described as as team motivator and adviser to manager Jose Pekerman. However, Pekerman has been less than enthusiastic, and Maradona told Argentine radio yesterday that he was withdrawing. "I don't think it's the best moment to join the team," he said. "I want to make it clear that I don't want to get in anyone's way."

Not for now, perhaps, but many think it is just a matter of time. Only last week the Argentinian Football Association's president Julio Gorondona, said he was a future national coach.

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