Maradona opens up on life of deception

'I stole their wallet without realising it. Argentinians are proud because no one saw me. They identify with that'

It wasn't exactly a deathbed confession, but Diego Maradona, still recovering in Cuba from his near-fatal heart attack, did say that while he offered the English "a thousand apologies" for his infamous "Hand of God" goal in the 1986 World Cup he would not hesitate, given the chance, to do it again.

It wasn't exactly a deathbed confession, but Diego Maradona, still recovering in Cuba from his near-fatal heart attack, did say that while he offered the English "a thousand apologies" for his infamous "Hand of God" goal in the 1986 World Cup he would not hesitate, given the chance, to do it again.

"I was and always will be happy with the goal I scored with my hand," says Maradona in an interview to be broadcast on Tuesday on Channel Four. "I offer the English a thousand apologies, but I'd still do it again." Maradona said he had been scoring goals with his hands, conning referees, from the age of five in the little leagues right up to the time he played in the first division in Argentina. Cheating and getting away with it is a trick much admired by his compatriots, Maradona explained. "That's what I did to the English. I stole their wallet without them realising. Argentinians are proud because no one saw me. They identify with that."

Observing Maradona at his health spa outside Havana, where courtesy of Fidel Castro he has been seeking to heal his battered heart and overcome his cocaine addiction since January, one has to wonder whether cheating has become a habit so chronic that he is unable to repress the impulse to deceive not just others, but himself. Reliving the night he suffered his heart attack, for example, he insists - against the evidence of both doctors and police - that it was not a cocaine overdose which triggered the collapse. "The problem was mixing cough medicine with sleeping pills," he says. "I have taken drugs, but I swear on my daughters' lives that I hadn't that night." His daughters: he is forever banging on about his daughters. "My daughters are the most important thing for me," he says. "My daughters are my reason for living... whoever touches my daughters dies." And so on and so forth.

Despite the operetta clichés, it would be presumptuous to say he is not sincere in his affection. Yet it would not be altogether unfair to say that he is deceiving himself again. Because if his daughters - teenagers now - really were the most important thing he might have made more of an effort earlier, before he was at death's door, to kick a habit which by his own admission has made his children's lives a misery.

To spend any time at all with Maradona is to realise that truly the most important thing in his life is football. His life's tragedy is that he cannot continue playing. Or rather, not in those vast amphitheatres, luxuriating in the acclaim of his frenzied devotees. But he still can't resist a kickabout in even the most humble of company.

Other professional players, even great players, do not necessarily enjoy watching football. And even if they do, they are rarely fans in the true sense - half-mad people fanatically loyal to one club. But watch Maradona watching his team, his life's passion, Boca Juniors, on television and you will see an image, a caricature, of the most frenzied football follower the world has seen.

Especially if you happen to catch him - as Channel Four's cameras did - watching live, by satellite, from his Cuban exile, the game the Argentines call "the Superclassic", Boca Juniors versus River Plate. Maradona is so fraught, he is so desperate, so hysterically shrill that you fear he is going to suffer a massive heart attack and die right there.

Relief comes in the shape of a Boca goal, whereupon he hurls himself, clothed, into a swimming pool. But then there is the appalling tension of seeing whether Boca hold on to their lead. They do not. River Plate equalise and Maradona spends the rest of the game hurling obscenities at the referee and the River players, his face pressed so close to the TV screen, so twisted with rage and hatred, that even his friends watching with him - Argen-tina fanatics all - wonder whether he has finally severed the chord that connects him to the real world, whether he has descended into total, irretrievable madness.

But he has not. He is only partially mad, as anyone would be who became so rich and famous so fast, who became an object of pagan adoration for millions. As he says, for he does occasionally deviate into light: "They didn't give me time to mature." And he has not matured yet.

That is why he failed abysmally when he tried his hand at coaching a second-division Argentine team a few years back (failure was always the referee's fault, not his). Maybe the rehabilitation in Cuba will pay off. He certainly looks a lot healthier than when he arrived. And he claims he is getting off the drugs.

"I'm giving up. It's difficult - a long journey. You get hooked, but you can do it." Whether he is kidding himself once again, time will tell. The problem, as his friends say, is that it is almost impossible to imagine what Maradona, who will be 40 in October, could possibly do with his life from now on, beyond endless rehab-ilitation in a tropical clinic. He himself has his ideas. "I dream of coaching Manchester United, Barcelona. I dream of coaching Real Madrid, Boca Juniors, the Argentine team. They'll never kill my dreams."

That is one true thing he said. The pity is that dreams - dreams mostly of glories past - are all he has left.

Channel Four will be broadcasting "Maradona - Kicking the Habit" at 10pm on Tuesday. The idea was based on an article which appeared in the IoS Review by John Carlin, who provided the script.

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