"I want to stop. I know I want to stop. I don't want to die for nothing, but the bad things I have done to my body make me feel I have chosen death." So said Diego Maradona, five years ago, when he was just 38. But he was not quite as passive or as pessimistic in his attitudes as this dark, upsetting statement suggests.
Not long after he said these words, and prompted by a cocaine overdose in Uruguay, Maradona went into a long programme of addiction treatment in Cuba. Recent events have borne out only too clearly the fears of all those who worried that since his return to Argentina his recovery had run aground.
Maradona's decline has been steep and relentless, as spectacular and inexorable as his rise. Born in the slums, his footballing talent was apparent by the time he was three, his fame was spreading by the time he was 10, and his first million had been banked by the time he was 22. He has been called "the greatest footballer on the planet".
But the truth is that the adulation, the fame and the money have not done him any good at all. It has become a truism to point to the taboo- and law-breaking antics of British footballers, and put them down to poor education, inflated wages, too much attention and too little responsibility. The same goes in spades for Maradona, who also is considered, by himself and others, as representative of Argentina's very nationhood. Only recently he proclaimed that "Our [World Cup] win in 1986 was revenge for the Falklands. It was like beating a country, not a football team. Lots of young Argentinians died there, mown down like little birds."
Maradona's career has always been dogged by accusations of drug abuse, wild behaviour and sexual impropriety. His profile in the 1980s looked very much like that which is familiar to us now, as we forever scratch our heads and talk of British footballers as uniquely decadent, in a way that is particularly disturbing, particularly modern, and particularly British.
Despite all this, though, while their worst excesses are condemned, the idea of footballing bad boys is still celebrated, even when the reality can be pitiful. This is happening in Argentina, as fans gather, lachrymose, around the clinic in which Maradona has been treated. For these big footballing stars, who carry with them the aspirations of a nation, no act of self-destruction is gross enough to turn the fan away. Like naughty, badly parented children, footballers are constantly told that it is their worst excesses that get them the most attention.
In Britain, we are constantly indulging in smaller acts of this paradoxical adulation, somehow letting footballers form the sad yet correct impression that PR longevity and marketing bankability can be improved rather than destroyed by self-destructive idiocy. What else could account for the tedious detail in which the break-up of George Best's sad little marriage has been scrutinised, even though it is a long time since the young Irishman destroyed his own career and talent by indulging his alcoholism and his sexual incontinence?
What else can explain the fact that when a footballer is accused of marital infidelity, the immediate reaction from the media is to suggest that the alleged impropriety was not due to a failing of his but to faults in the conduct of his wife. There has been some speculation that David Beckham's magnetism for sponsors may be damaged by the allegations against him. The truth, though, is that among the lads, accusations of marital infidelity with attractive young women do not damage an image. Far from it.
It is not exactly a reason to be cheerful, this little irony whereby Maradona's plight reminds us forcibly that poorly behaved footballers are not bred uniquely in Britain. Football is in a ghastly state around the world. While the clucking of the chattering classes might suggest that this is a situation that is universally condemned, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
When Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that Footballers' Wives celebrated all that was pernicious about decadent society, he was laughed at and ridiculed by the same chattering classes, who largely enjoy the post-modern irony of a camp show satirising the rich but dumb. The Archbishop, it was roundly agreed, couldn't tell fact from fiction. But actually, the strength of Footballers' Wives is that it doesn't stray far from fact. And we take the reality it mirrors with the same lack of seriousness as we do the fictional version.
Some of the ugliest aspects of football are missing from Footballers' Wives. English football hooliganism is something that we like to consider to be a part of the past. But football hooliganism is still fetishised, in this country and abroad. A recent article in the "weekly men's mag" Zoo billed itself as a Euro 2004 hooligan special, and jauntily profiled the "huge shift in Europe's league of violent fans".
The editorial contention was advertised firmly in the headline, which quoted: "You English are nothing. We break skulls". These words of wisdom, from "an anonymous German fan", were followed by the promise that "in internationals you pitch against a common enemy". A Croatian gang leader is also quoted as saying: "We don't think you English realise how hard we are. We respect you as founders of hooliganism, but where are you now?"
The answer, according to Zoo, is at number five, behind Turkey, Croatia, Holland and Germany, but still ahead of Italy and France. The magazine spread was illustrated with many scenes of violence. All of them were gratuitous, as captions such as "Organisers hope to avoid scenes like this" or "Will banning orders stop this?" are designed to emphasise.
Certainly, articles like this one can be dismissed as junk journalism, alongside the half-million young men who are said to be buying it each week. But the fact that these people are dismissed, or at the time of a footballer's early demise even sentimentalised, is part of the problem.
I recently saw an intensely troubling film based on John King's novelThe Football Factory, made on a shoestring by the young director Nick Love. The film makes a good fist of exploring questions of changing masculine identity, and way football hooliganism can be seen as a way of resisting that change. The violence is graphic and realistic. The film cannot be accused of glamorising violence or its consequences in the least. But even though the narrative offers an alternative, and to most minds preferable, model of masculinity, the film has already become a cult hit on the pirate circuit. It is not the exploration of masculinity that is attracting these viewers, I'm sure. Instead it is the enjoyable crunch of brick on cheekbone. The film may present the ghastly reality of football hooliganism. But it may attract an adoring audience that doesn't find such a reality to be ghastly in the least.
All this may seem to be far away from Maradona. But his own story amply illustrates how football worldwide is in love with the stench of failure, never more admiring than when an example of squandered talent and wasted potential is placed before it. Certainly, football is not the only arena in which this skewed sense of worth is seen. But not just in Britain, not just now, but for decades and around the world, it has been its apotheosis. Poor Maradona is not much of a hero. But for God knows what awful reasons, he is the sort of hero the world tells boys to be.