Just two years ago, the story of Diego Armando Maradona seemed to have entered its final chapter. The fallen angel of world football was on the brink of death, having collapsed several times owing to his addiction to alcohol and uncontrolled eating.
El Pelusa (the hairy one) had withdrawn to a psychiatric clinic in Buenos Aires to try to combat his multiple addictions. He had already undergone several recoveries, each of which was followed by a catastrophic relapse. His compatriots feared, not for the first time, that Maradona's once glittering star had faded for good.
Throughout his glorious, if scandalous, career, he had often repeated that he longed to be coach of the "Albicelestes" – the blue-and-whites – the Argentine national football team, which for 14 years he captained. Outside the hospital at that low point in 2006, his life's ambition seemed to be an impossibility, a dream written off long ago. But Maradona, in defiance of so many largely self-inflicted setbacks, has achieved the impossible.
Today, Maradona expects to be confirmed as Argentina's coach. It is a spectacular, epic redemption for a man now set to reoccupy a place among the gods, not only as a sporting hero, but as one of Latin America's living legends.
The life of Maradona, still young – he celebrates his 48th birthday today – has been a rollercoaster of swoops and dives beyond every regular extreme of human experience.
Maradona himself now he reckons he's finally found peace, and normality – if such a word can be applied to a life in which normality has rarely figured. Born to a poor family in Corrientes, a shanty town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, his rise to the top was rapid. There can few people in the world – even among those who know and care nothing of football – who don't know who Maradona is. But just in case anyone should still be ignorant of the achievements of this legendary figure, he hired an award-winning film-maker to make a documentary about his life. The result premiered at Cannes this spring. The Bosnian director and double Palme d'Or-winner Emir Kusturica, in immortalising the former Argentine captain on celluloid, sought "to shed some light on Maradona's constant wish to establish harmony with his family, and recreate the real personality of Maradona".
Made by an avowed fan, the film airbrushes out the less glorious chapters of Maradona's life: there is no mention of his illegitimate son, nor his relationship with the Neapolitan mafia.
The star of the show, already seeking to edit his own legend, possibly wanted to counter a much darker portrait offered in last year's biopic by the Italian director Marco Risi. That film showed what critics described as "football brilliance overshadowed by a life of dissipation". Most of the movie concentrated on what Risi called "the dark tunnel of his life off the pitch".
Light and shade; fall and redemption; it is easy to see why in Latin America, the life story of Diego Maradona has almost become a process of deification. And the aura of godliness still blazes from the football hero frequently written off as bonkers, deluded or on the point of death.
In South America, Maradona is worshipped for more than his footballing talent. He is bigger than Pele; far, far bigger, of course, than Beckham or, indeed, any player born in the West. He is – to reach for a comparison that approaches his status in the Spanish-speaking world – Evita Peron.
Indeed, his own origins, and those of his most fervent Argentine fans, lie precisely among the descamisados, the shirtless ones from the mean streets of Buenos Aires, who flocked to Evita and revered her as their saviour and goddess. To them, he is Che Guevara, and such iconography is not lost on Maradona himself. He bears the image of Che, tattooed on his right forearm.
He is superhuman, a god. And to many of his devotees, this is not simply a figure of speech. For Maradona has a worldwide following of hundreds of thousands, from Italy to Iceland, from Vietnam to Venezuela, who call themselves "disciples". They belong to the "Church of Maradona", complete with its own Ten Commandments, credo, and lord's prayer. The church celebrates its own Diego-devotional feast days.
Maradona has scaled the highest pinnacles, plumbed the depths of misery, humiliation and self-loathing. He has faced death several times. Like many quasi-divine figures, he frequently seems unhinged. In 2004, the player named by Fifa in 2000 as the greatest player of all time was rushed to the Swiss hospital in the Argentine capital with breathing difficulties and what his doctor described as a "swollen heart" and pulmonary infection.
In intensive care, on a respirator, and sedated, he was "treading a thin line between life and death", as Argentine newspapers breathlessly informed a nervous nation. His own medical staff had to deny reports that he had taken a cocaine overdose. Typically, perhaps, he was taken ill at an asado or barbeque after getting over-excited at a match at La Bonbonera, the stadium of his beloved former club, Boca Juniors, at the rough end of town. He withdrew during the second half from the box he has rented for life. Doctors feared that his heart would give out.
Fans mounted a vigil outside the Buenos Aires clinic, demonstrating the extremes of the devotion he inspired in this moment of crisis. The scenes were extraordinary. Fans draped themselves in the blue-and-yellow colours of Boca Juniors, carried photographs of their idol, glued posters of him wearing El Diez – the Number 10 shirt – in his glorious prime to the walls of the hospital. Priests and tearful young women reattached their posters and stickers to the walls as soon as a hospital employee removed them. "Diego, Argentina loves you," and "Hold on, Diego," they prayed.
Police had to cordon off the hospital entrance and hold back the crowd on a busy boulevard in central Buenos Aires. Many Argentines confessed to keeping the radio and television turned off for fear of what they might hear. But recover he did.
Neither was this the first time that Maradona cheated death. In January 2000, four years before his spectacular collapse at La Bonbonera, heart failure felled the sportsman while he was holidaying at the Uruguayan beach resort of Punta del Este, a popular destination among wealthy Argentines. He was in hospital being treated for weeks for hypertension and an irregular heartbeat. This marked perhaps his lowest ebb, when even his loyal compatriots turned against him, embarrassed by the depths of clownishness to which their national hero had now plunged. Callers phoned into Argentine radio stations crying out: "Let him die! Let him kill himself!"
Maradona withdrew for long stretches to Cuba for drug rehabilitation treatment, in what was possibly the most surreally improbable episode of his rackety life. He dyed his ebony curls a screaming orange and struck up an unlikely acquaintance with Fidel Castro. It was the start of a fascinating friendship, played out largely away from the cameras and gaze of the media, save for the interview conducted years later with the Cuban leader on Maradona's own television chat show.
He also reportedly donated the proceeds of his autobiography to Castro and the people of Cuba, whom he admired for their "dignity" and healthcare system. The loyalty of his father, Diego, his ex-wife, Claudia, and his two teenage daughters, Dalma and Gianina, hauled him from the brink of an early grave. But his health remained broken for years.
Throughout the lost decade after he stopped playing professionally, in 1997, Maradona was a pallid, grotesquely bloated figure, his health ravaged by cocaine abuse. Since his most bloated years, and the surgery he underwent in 2004, he has been back under the surgeon's knife for extreme surgery to bring his weight down – even resorting to stomach stapling.
Throughout the incredible journey, the fans never quite gave up. His autobiography, Yo Soy El Diego ("I Am Diego"), published in Argentina in September 2000, became a national bestseller, shifting 125,000 copies in a week. One of his many memorable catchphrases was "I am Maradona and I can do what I like." Having been told for decades by sycophants that he was a god, it is hardly surprising that during those years of his tragic decline and crazed megalomania, he came to believe he was, indeed, divine.
Maradona's dash from poverty to fame and wealth was marked by drug abuse. His bodyguards were not stern SAS professionals but chums from back home in the Boca docklands who would participate in his sessions of drugs, alcohol and easy women. Cocaine use is common enough among Buenos Aires's lower echelons – or among its high-life, for that matter. Why would a cocky young sporting genius be different?
Everything spun out of control when he arrived, in 1984, in Naples. After two years playing for Barcelona, he was still relatively new to European life. In Italy, he seemed to find even more temptation for a young man drawn to sleaze and excess than he had encountered in his homeland. His club, Napoli, was linked to the Mafia, which reportedly supplied Maradona his drugs. While he admitted cocaine use, he always denied dealing. Nonetheless, he was suspended from the Italian league in 1991 for 15 months after testing positive for cocaine use. His star fell. In the full glare of the media, Fifa suspended him for 15 months at the 1994 World Cup Finals in the United States, after he tested positive for the banned stimulant ephedrine. Finally, he retired from the game in 1997, a physical wreck, aged 36.
By the time he finally brought his playing career to an end, he was back in Argentina, following 11 years playing in Europe, at Barcelona, Napoli and Seville. But even in his homeland, the problems did not go away. Perhaps it was no surprise. Even in his early career, which began in 1976, as he swiftly scaled his way to the top, his progress was interrupted by humiliating plunges marked by drugs, bans and arrests. After his meteoric rise, fans watched with foreboding as he careered towards what one Buenos Aires psychology professor described as a downfall as inevitable as that of Diana, Princess of Wales. "When I think of Maradona, I imagine him driving in slow motion towards the same column as Lady Di," said Rodolfo Urribarri.
Still, arriving back from Seville in 1993 to join Newell's Old Boys, a team in Rosario, in northern Buenos Aires, he was welcomed back with open arms. The welcome was short-lived – he was sacked for missing training in 1994, the year when he opened gunfire on journalists outside his house. His final comeback, with Boca Juniors in 1997, was aborted after yet another failed drugs test. Fame and football plucked the urchin from the Buenos Aires slums and brought him home physically and mentally broken. But even with his career as a player ruined, Maradona would not go quietly.
In one famously improbable comeback, in 2005, the former Argentine captain by now widely written off as a drug-addled, barely coherent buffoon, hosted his own hugely successful television chat-show that held Argentines enthralled. It was on this show that he finally came clean about his "Hand of God" goal against England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, admitting publicly for the first time that he punched the ball into the net with his fist, and never regretted it. Of course, we had all seen the video footage. But his frank, unapologetic account still shocked.
He told viewers of his chat show La Noche Del 10 ("Tonight with 10") that he did indeed score the first goal of the quarter-final "with my left fist". He boasted that he'd deliberately planned the manoeuvre "from the start", because the England goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, was so much taller than the diminutive, 5ft 7in frame of Maradona: "I knew I'd never get past him with a header... I want to tell this to Argentinians, and the world; why not?" It was a boast, with no trace of remorse.
Breaking a silence of nearly 20 years, Maradona revealed exactly what happened in one of the most controversial moments in football history. "When I saw the linesman was halfway down the pitch, I called on my team-mates to embrace me and make a big show of acclaiming the goal, to make sure it was confirmed. They were hanging back a bit timidly. They embraced me, but as if to say, 'we're robbing them'. But I told them, 'who robs a robber, is pardoned for a hundred years'."
Maradona said Shilton later reproached him for the invalid goal. "And I told him, 'yeah, well, obviously I'm going to lose sleep over that.' What do I care?" he crowed. "I never regretted scoring that goal with my hand... what's more, I scored another one like it playing for Napoli."
Argentines may never have stopped adoring the man they considered their undisputed hero, but Maradona's life story has been chequered enough for his countrymen to express mixed feelings about today's lastest resurrection of their icon. A survey in the daily Clarin found 74 per cent of those consulted are "not in favour of his appointment" as coach. Many, it seems, doubt whether, after the physical and mental buffeting he has withstood, he is capable of running a top-rank team. Sceptics point to his mediocre results at Mandiyu in Corrientes Buenos Aires, and Racing Club.
The daily newspaper La Nacion described his appointment as "daring", given his combative personality and his long record of excess, even though he has calmed down in recent years. It adds, "Diego risks damaging the Maradona myth." The sports daily Ole was more positive: "This is his best moment, he is clear-headed, close to the players and it's just a year and a half until the World Cup." But it, too, sounds a warning: "Despite the idolatry, as a coach he's an unknown."
The Madrid daily El Pais, meanwhile, summed up the feeling in the Latin world with the headline: "Um, not sure, we'll have to give him the benefit of the doubt." Last week, his former teammate who savoured the 1986 World Cup victory, Jorge Valdano, commented: "It's a risky move to appoint a coach to the national team who hasn't acquired previous experience with club teams... He was a capricious, rebellious person – except when he was playing. Then we all loved him."
His first big test will be a friendly, against Scotland at Hampden Park next month, followed by another friendly with France and then two qualifying matches for the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. Argentina is only third in its group, behind Paraguay and Brazil, and faces Venezuela and Bolivia. Having led his national team on the pitch for 17 years, he returns 14 years later, to lead it from the sidelines. It'll be a trial of fire. Who knows if he'll still be there in 2010? But until the next twist in the extraordinary narrative of his life, fans and sceptics worldwide will be agog to see if Maradona secures his place at football's Olympian heights, or if he crashes, burns and tumbles back to earth, a fallen angel once again.
Simply the best? Football Editor Glenn Moore gives his verdict
One World Cup, a league championship in Argentina and a brace in Italy, a Uefa Cup (the lesser of the two European club competition), and various domestic cups.
His raw statistics wouldn't appear to stake a claim for being the world's greatest footballer. There is no winner's medal from the European Cup (the forerunner to the Champions League), or its South American equivalent, the Copa Libertadores. Nor is there silverware from the Copa America, the South American version of the European Championships. Diego Maradona's mantelpiece does not groan under the weight of trophies won on the pitch, particularly compared to Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Charlton or Zinedine Zidane.
Great as those players were, however, only the partisan would suggest Maradona was an inferior talent. Football is a team game, and the gifted are not always blessed with being the right nationality, nor, in the days before a freewheeling transfer market, being at the right club. The most obvious example would perhaps be George Best, a man who would rank in most people's top 10 players but never even competed in the World Cup, let alone won it – his nation, Northern Ireland, lacked the talent across a whole team to support him.
Though an argument has been made for Alfredo di Stefano, the Argentine striker who led Real Madrid to five European Cups, most commentators would regard the theoretical title of world's best player to be a photo-finish between Maradona and Pele, the Brazilian whose career spanned 1958-1977, a generation before Maradona's.
Pele won more honours, but also played for more dominant teams. While he was a key figure in two of Brazil's World Cup triumphs he could not be said, as was the case with Maradona in 1986, to have carried a nation to glory on his back. There is one photograph from Argentina's World Cup semi-final against Belgium (pictured) in which it appears that the game was simply Maradona against the Belgian team. The photograph caricatures his contribution to that game, but to an extent, it was accurate.
So it was with Napoli. The southern Italian club has passionate support but, in more than a century, has won just two Italian titles and one European trophy. All were won during Maradona's seven-year spell there.
Despite being hamstrung by drug and fitness problems, he carried the entire team. Partly these were self-inflicted problems, but it was also a consequence of the nature of football two decades ago. Maradona weaved his magic despite playing – like Pele – in an era when brutal, cynical defending often went unchecked. Maradona could expect to be kicked throughout a match. He suffered several serious injuries and his ankles, in particular, were rarely undamaged.
That he did not suffer even more seriously was thanks to an extraordinary balance and awareness, enabling him to avoid many aggressive challenges. At 5ft 5in, Maradona was small for a top-flight player but his low centre of gravity – he was always compact, later stocky – made it difficult for big defenders to mark him. He also possessed an ability to control the ball that has probably never been matched by a serious player (as opposed to mere exhibitionists who make a living out of ball-juggling but never face a tackle). His famous goal against England in the 1986 World Cup semi-final – not the infamous 'Hand of God' one – is a perfect illustration of this.
Like all great players, he had a strategist's understanding of the game, enabling him to draw opponents out of position to release team-mates and to anticipate opportunities. While not as prolific a goalscorer as Pele, he was, in fact, a better creator of goals.
So who was better? In South America, your view is dependent on your nationality. The rivalry between Brazil and Argentina gives an edge to a debate further inflamed by the contrast between the ambassadorial Pele and controversial Maradona.
When Fifa, the world's governing body, created an award for the player of the 20th century, the original intention was to determine it by internet votes. A cyber-blitz in Argentina ensured Maradona walked it – so Fifa added on the verdict of a 'Grand Jury'. They backed Pele. Eventually Fifa split the award. By wrongheaded methods they probably reached the right verdict.