Whiff of sulphur pervades Maradona's return

The 'Hand of God' has signed a new playing contract in his native Argentina. Phil Davison reports from Buenos Aires
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The Independent Online
The sniffing, we were assured, was down to a bout of influenza. As the divinely-guided left hand signed his name to a pounds 5m, 30-month comeback contract with the Argentinian First Division side, Boca Juniors, last week, Boca officials must have been praying that Diego Armando Maradona would stick this time to aspirin and hot toddies to shake off the 'flu.

At 34, more than a year after starting his 15-month Fifa ban for taking illicit drugs during the World Cup, the little man is back. Almost. The ban expires on 28 September but the Boca president, Antonio Alegre, whose team is chasing its first championship in five years, will ask Fifa to reduce the ban to allow him to start the season next month.

Appearing alongside Maradona at a chaotic Buenos Aires signing ceremony covered live on national TV was Argentina's other "bad boy", the 28-year- old striker Claudio Caniggia, who joined Boca on a pounds 630,000 one-year deal. Caniggia was barred for 13 months while playing for Roma in Italy in 1993 for testing positive for cocaine after a Serie A game.

The press is billing it the "dream team", but Boca's rivals have already dubbed them Coca Juniors after the leaf that produces the illicit white powder.

"God has given me to Boca, which was what I wanted," said the new, slimline Maradona. He had a face lift last month to trim his jowls, saying he wanted to look better for his wife, and has been wearing high collars and scarves to hide the scars. "Caniggia and I were kicked out of soccer together and now we're coming back together."

Maradona insists the ban was a plot by the Fifa president Joao Havelange, a Brazilian, and US officials to remove him from last year's World Cup to improve the chances of the eventual champions, Brazil. Notwithstanding his earlier ban for cocaine abuse while playing for Napoli in 1991, and a drug conviction in Buenos Aires in 1992, polls show that most Argentinians believe him.

Ephedrine, the main drug found in his World Cup blood test, can be bought over the counter in Buenos Aires. "It's a decongestant. Everybody takes it," a businessman, Marcelo Ruiz, told me. "Maradona is a jewel on the pitch. Once an idol, always an idol. People will forgive anything."

To allow Maradona to play for Boca, Alegre will have to lift another ban. He barred the player from attending Boca's league matches at the end of last season, saying his presence was distracting the team and fans. The latter constantly chanted his name and demanded that Alegre sign him.

Maradona had long said he would like to end his career with Boca, the team he helped to the Argentinian championship in 1981. Its only other league title since then was in 1991. Perhaps to up the price of a Boca contract, he had flirted with Brazil's Santos, the side where Pele made his name and in which the Brazilian, now his country's sports minister, retains a close interest.

When the two great Number 10s posed together on a hammock in Rio, the talk was of a pounds 3.2m, one-year contract under which Maradona would be Santos's player-coach. In the end, their get-together smacked distinctly of politics.

On the Brazilian side, Pele may have been using the possibility of Maradona's coming to Santos to divert the attention of workers who had been stoning Pele's politician boss, President Fernando Enrique Cardoso, over his economic reforms. In Brazil, football is far more important than politics.

On the Argentinian side, it may not have been coincidental that Maradona flew to Rio on the eve of Argentina's presidential elections. A photograph of Pele and Maradona, who had called on voters to elect the incumbent Carlos Menem, and news of a "good luck" phone call from the two Number 10s to Menem, just happened to appear in Argentinian newspapers on the morning of the elections. Since the key to Menem's victory was the working- class, football-crazy Buenos Aires province, the nod from two football greats did Menem no harm.

After his more renowned spells with Barcelona and Napoli, Maradona played for Seville in Spain before being released in 1993 because of his "erratic private life". The word was that he was a regular in the Andalucian city's red light district.

From there, he returned to Argentina to play for Newell's Old Boys but was soon released for missing training. That led to the February 1994 incident when he crouched behind his Mercedes and fired an airgun at reporters. He still faces trial for the shooting.

His last match on the pitch, before the Fifa ban, was when Argentina beat Nigeria in the World Cup last year, and in the previous match against Greece he marked his goal with a screaming close-up to a touchline camera. The ban did not include coaching so he had a go, disastrously, with both Deportivo Mandiyu and Racing Club.

Nobody can be sure what sort of a player Maradona will be on his return, but the signs are that he remains quick to play the prima donna. Playing five-a-side recently in Santiago, for an Argentinian selection against the Colo Colo club of Chile, a plastic cup hit one of his team-mates. Maradona remonstrated with the crowd, and when they replied with jeers and spitting, he stormed off, saying: "I'm not playing in front of these animals." The referee was forced to stop the match.

It will take a lot, though, to undermine his status as national hero. As I walked through Buenos Aires recently, people cheered as a man in the famous sky blue and white No 10 shirt jogged slowly at the head of a crowd. He was Pablo Prada, a 30-year-old multiple sclerosis victim, on a run to encourage other victims.

Alongside him, in a tracksuit, was the man who had given him the strip. As he ran, Maradona, in a tracksuit, deftly juggled an orange with his feet as though it were attached by elastic. "This country has three wonderful things," said Prada. "The women. The youth. And Diego."

n Diego Maradona has said that he would never again set foot in the United States after he was only given an eight-day visa instead of the 10-year visas his Boca Junior team-mates received. "They refused to grant me a proper visa because I admire and like Fidel Castro and I believe that Che Guevara is the greatest person of all time," he said.