Maradona's late run proves a winner

Mike Rowbottom finds Argentina's maestro as elusive with words as he was on the pitch

A stocky little man with a sparkling ear-ring and a curious ginger- striped hairstyle bounced belatedly into the Oxford Union chamber last night with a politician's smile. Diego Armando Maradona had made another late run into position to receive the acclaim to which he has become accustomed in his 35 years on this earth.

His address was prefaced by a dampener right out of after dinner stories - a silent tribute to the late Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated Israeli prime minister who was to have addressed the union next year.

Maradona's natural disinclination for public appearances was emphasised just over a month ago when he played his comeback match for Boca Juniors in South Korea 15 months after being ejected from the World Cup for taking five varieties of ephedrine-related drugs.

He offended his Korean hosts by refusing to take part in promotional activities linked with the game. He did not attend a children's coaching session. He did not visit the car plant of the match sponsors. He did, however, harangue his team-mates and throw food at the walls of his hotel restaurant.

"I signed a contract only to play football for Boca," he said with his customary diplomacy. "Not to take part in a Korean folk festival."

But the particular circumstances of this fixture dictated that he came over especially from Argentina to speak here. The invitation was proffered by a fellow Argentinian and long-standing family friend, Esteban Ciccello Hubner, who is this year's president of the Oxford University L'Chaim Society, which has attracted an eclectic range of speakers to the Oxford Union's stained glass chamber.

Perhaps it tickled Maradona's vanity to follow Mikhail Gorbachev, Dr Christian Barnard, Simon Wiesenthal and Javier Perez de Cuellar.

Whether it was nervously engendered by Rabin's fate, or whether it was standard practice for the Argentinian, all those present had to enter through a metal detector. They had not bothered with all that for Vanessa Mae the previous week.

Before Maradona's arrival, last night's audience viewed replays of his infamous "hand of God" goal that put England on their way out of the 1986 World Cup finals. The jeers this piece of audacious cheating evoked were almost affectionate. Perhaps time is a healer after all.

He began by saying that he was not going to speak for very long. In fact, he spoke at some length, giving an enthusiastic but rambling account of his footballing career and of his humble beginnings in a Buenos Aires shanty town, touching often upon the theme of joy-giving performers being spitefully quashed by small-minded authorities.

His own subsequent "deification", he said, did not bother him. "I always consider myself a simple man, a normal human being. And that's what I shall always be."

Inevitably, he was questioned over the Hand of God incident. " I think at the time I cure everything," he said enigmatically. "I always try to do the best for my team." Could he, someone asked, hope to play again? "Yes," he said. "I feel like a boy of 35 years old".

Maradona, who was flanked by his two young daughters, was finally enjoined to wear a scholar's cap and gown before the Lord Mayor of Oxford presented him with a certificate bearing the inscription: "Master Inspirer of Oxford dreams." The absence of any awkward questions about drugs allowed this master to dream on.

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