Maradona dons cap and gown

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Oxford University has seldom had a guest speaker like Diego Armando Maradona.

"We've had Reagan and Gorbachev here, and he out-did them both," said Rabbi Shmuel Boteach, the director of the Jewish student group L'Chaim Society.

"The students showed him a kind of adulation I haven't seen before. Gorbachev got the restrained academic adulation, but not the gung-ho thing we saw with Maradona. They were clearly in love with him."

The Jewish student group, which regularly invites politicians and artists to speak and debate in the storied Oxford Union, offered Maradona the forum Monday to address about 1,000 students and about 150 journalists.

"We had about 78 news organisations represented, far above what we've had here in recent memory," Rabbi Boteach said.

The 35-year-old midfielder, disgraced twice for drug-related suspensions from soccer, lapped up the chance. Notoriously unreliable, he arrived 50 minutes late - tied up in traffic to Oxford after a Concorde flight to London.

"A football player in my country is regarded as a know-nothing," Maradona told reporters. "So it was important for me to be here and show we're not as ignorant as they say we are."

Maradona, who began his second career comeback last month with the Argentinian club Boca Juniors, used the historic debating chamber to promote his latest idea - a football players' union.

He criticised Fifa, world football's governing body, and suggested they were behind his two 15-month suspensions. But that was not what the students came for.

"I was hoping there would be something more interesting than his speech," Clare Dixon, an 18-year-old student, said. There was. A student tossed Maradona a golf ball and he foot-juggled it. Then he balanced a football on his forehead. The applause thundered both times.

"Just being in the same room with him was unbelievable. He's the best player in the last 20 years," another student, Tom Ewing, said.

Seated beside him at the podium were his two young daughters, in party dresses, and his wife, Claudia, who eventually joined him from the audience.

"I've seen leaders, some very famous people have come through here and I've never seen them bring their children," Rabbi Boteach said.

Maradona, a street kid who grew up in a Buenos Aires slum, seemed sincerely moved by the event.

"It's been very emotional ... it's not often a soccer player can face so many people so rich in culture and education," he said, donning a cap and gown and holding an honorary diploma presented to him by Oxford's Lord Mayor.

The diploma read: "Master Inspirer of Oxford Dreamers".