The Maradona diet: a gastric bypass, holy water and a pinch of salt

Former World Cup winner faces 'biggest game' after drastic treatment to restore his health. Phil Davison reports
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For Diego Armando Maradona, according to his doctors, this will have to be "the best game he has ever played." And even if "the hand of God" remains with him, they say, he will still have to use his head to win this one.

The former Argentinian star, suffering from what the doctors called "morbid obesity," has been tipping the scales at nearly 20 stone. Now, he's had his stomach stapled down to half its size in a so-called "gastric bypass." By this time next year, he will be down to his fighting weight of 11st 7lb and playing football again. At least, that's the theory.

The $15,000 (£7,850) operation took place in the Colombian seaside resort of Cartagena de Indias. Maradona hopes the city's renowned obesity surgeons have worked their magic. But the reality is that the operation is not without risk.

"We can't really say just yet whether he's out of danger," said Dr Francisco Holguin, the leader of the four-member surgery team at the Medihelp Services clinic. "Complications can appear up to a month after the operation. But we don't foresee any for Maradona. He has been the perfect patient, the best I've ever had."

Although the 44-year-old former World Cup winner walked out of the clinic at dawn last Wednesday, he stayed on in a luxury flat in the city's exclusive Bocagrande district for continuing outpatient treatment at the clinic. He will have to spend a month on a liquids-only diet before returning to Cuba to deal with his other pressing problem, his addiction to cocaine.

Given that addiction, his decision to have his stomach operation in Colombia, the world's cocaine-processing centre, was perhaps a little risky, but Dr Holguin said: "Being overweight often causes people to turn to drugs or alcohol. Losing weight should raise his self-esteem. He'll have a new image, and that will reduce the chances of him relapsing back into drugs."

Maradona's personal physician, Dr Alfredo Cahe, added: "Maradona will have to embark on a new way of life. He'll have to use his head and he'll need help from his friends. You can have the best surgeons in the world but without love and warmth, it's all useless."

Whether or not the man nicknamed El Pelusa, or "Fuzzy", in his native Argentina because of his hair can stay off drugs and out of trouble remains to be seen. There is also considerable doubt as to whether he will ever really grow up. "He always said that he had been taken to the peak of a mountain but, once there, nobody told him what to do," said his former wife, Claudia Villafane. "He never learned to cope with fame. He doesn't want to admit what's happening to him. He doesn't even want to admit we're divorced. He still keeps the wedding ring."

She said Maradona would have died if she and his family had not staged an "intervention" and signed him into a Buenos Aires clinic last year after drug-related heart and lung problems.

Between his Cuban drugs rehabilitation centre and the Colombian tummy-tucking clinic, he stopped off in Buenos Aires to do a TV show.

On the show, apparently in an effort to show that doping scandals were common, and that he was not the only culprit, he "revealed" an incident he said took place at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. In Argentina's last-16 game against Brazil, he said, Argentinian training staff, on the pitch to tend to an injured player, managed to drug Brazil's Branco by tossing him a bottle of water laced with tranquillisers.

After the 1986 "Hand of God" headlines, the Argentinian media swiftly dubbed this one the "holy water" scandal, though Maradona insisted he had nothing to do with it. "Brazil missed 20 chances in front of goal that day. That was not my fault," he said.

In Brazil, Branco did not take the revelations well. He said he had, indeed, felt drowsy late in the game, when a brilliant run by Maradona laid on the winning goal from Claudio Caniggia and dumped the favourites out of the tournament. "What if I'd been dope tested after that game?" said the Brazilian defender. "That could have ended my career."

Branco threatened to sue the Argentinian Football Federation but many in Argentina took Maradona's "revelations" with a pinch of the kind of white powder he is now supposed to stick to, and even that in lesser amounts for the sake of his diet.

The Argentinian Football Federation and the team coach of the time, Carlos Bilardo, denied that the "holy water" incident ever took place. "Maradona has to get real," said Bilardo.

So the stomach-stapling, and losing nearly half his current body weight, is just the latest test for the little Argentinian. He also faces a £21m tax bill from the Italian authorities from his glory-to-disgrace days with Napoli, the club he led to their first-ever league title in 1987 but left in 1991 after failing a dope test for cocaine.

"People ask me if he was rebellious," said Dr Holguin of the Cartagena clinic. "I say, no, he's very nice, an extraordinary person. If he keeps up the diet, he should lose up to six kilos [almost a stone] a month. If he exercises, and stays away from drugs, he should be able to return to sport, to play golf.

"Will he ever play football again? Sure, why not? Though perhaps only as a hobby."

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