Missing Maradona holed up in hotel

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There was a time when people disappearing in Argentina was all too common and relatives were unlikely to make much headway in appealing for official help in discovering their whereabouts. Then one man went missing for four days and the president himself promised to solve the mystery.

Who could have inspired such sympathy in Carlos Menem? Diego Maradona, of course. The Hand of God apparently thumbed a lift to oblivion some time on Monday and had not been seen since. He turned up yesterday soon after Menem announced on radio: "I'll take it upon myself to find out what has happened to Maradona."

It was not exactly the president's toughest assignment. Maradona was found at a Buenos Aires hotel - with Menem.

Maradona's manager, Marcos Franchi, entered the hotel and left glum-faced and tight-lipped an hour later, implicitly confirming the presence of Argentina's former World Cup captain despite denials by hotel staff.

The president's promise to find the missing miscreant came hours after the nation's biggest-selling daily, Clarin, came out with the front-page headline: "What's going on with Maradona?"

The cynic's solution was that the jail sentence hanging over the one- time midfield magician had something to do with his vanishing act. On Wednesday, a judge refused to drop charges against Maradona for firing an air rifle at reporters last year. Facing a potential four-year jail sentence, the former Argentina captain failed to persuade the judge to agree to his performing community service in lieu.

Some suggested that the man who punched England out of the 1986 World Cup had fallen out with his wife, Claudia. There was also a rumour that Maradona was at a drug detoxification clinic. Drugs brought about his downfall. Having been banned for cocaine use when playing for Napoli in Italy in 1991, he finished his comeback in disgrace, failing a drug test at the 1994 World Cup for using a banned stimulant.

Maradona, suspended worldwide for 15 months, has lost none of his allure for his compatriots but has tested their compassion since becoming a coach. Like so many great players before him, he has found football a different ball game when trying to influence it from the touchline. His first job, with Deportivo Mandiyu, brought only one victory in a dozen games, and after walking away from that club, he has found little more success with his current club, Racing. They have enjoyed only one success in five national championship matches this season, and the Argentine FA has just fined him more than £2,000 for twice being dismissed from the bench.