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Maradona: A life of two halves

He had the world at his feet, but the fall of the greatest footballer on the planet was swift and brutal. Now he's back - as a TV star - and Argentina is enthralled. Paul Newman reports

Saturday 20 August 2005 00:00 BST

The life of Diego Armando Maradona is the great public drama of contemporary Argentina and the country watched this week, joyfully transfixed, as the man once voted the best footballer ever staged his latest comeback. As a footballer, his five attempts to come out of retirement ended in ignominy. As a human being, he offered hope on Monday night that he might just complete the biggest turnaround of his life.

In Maradona's drug-fuelled world, the past 18 months have been excessive even by his standards. In April last year he spent 12 days in intensive care with heart and lung problems. After years of abuse, his 43-year-old body and 5ft 7in frame seemed on the point of giving up the fight, his weight having ballooned to nearly 20 stone. His mind almost followed: Maradona spent three months in a psychiatric hospital while his family fought a losing battle with his associates to keep him in Argentina.

Freed to travel to Cuba, where he had spent much of the previous four years on drug rehabilitation programmes following his near death from a cocaine overdose in 2000, Maradona piled on the pounds again. Early this year he went to Colombia for a gastric bypass operation, in which more than half of his stomach was stapled shut.

His weight dropped quickly, but it was not until his television appearance this week that the extent of his recovery became clear. In the first of a series of 13 programmes that he will host on Argentina's Channel 13, La Noche del 10 [Night of the Number 10, after his shirt number] lasted more than two hours and oozed schmaltz and emotion.

Maradona, who has shed several stone since his stomach operation, sang a song dedicated to himself, danced with a buxom Italian actress, handed out cigars, and joked with his guests, including Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina's leading goalscorer, and Gabriela Sabatini, the former tennis player.

The highlight was an interview with Pele, his only serious rival as best footballer. The Brazilian praised Maradona for his example in recovering from addiction, while the Argentinian sympathised with the recent arrest of Pele's son for alleged drugs offences. The two men finished by playing "head tennis".

However, there was no doubting the bigger star. The teary-eyed Maradona was only milking the adulation by comparing himself to Jesus Christ.

Rival television channels were left counting the cost as Mara-dona won the evening's ratings battle hands down. One broadcast a Harry Potter film in direct opposition, while another wheeled out a five-hour spectacular hosted by Marcelo Tinelli, the biggest personality on Argentinian television.

"It's been the only thing people have been talking about this week," Andres Prestileo, of La Nacion newspaper, said. "You can't turn on the television or radio or open a newspaper or magazine without hearing or reading about him. Almost everybody in Argentina is a fan of Maradona and to see him on television was a very emotional moment. Everyone was so happy to see him looking so well after all his problems."

The depth of the nation's affection for Maradona was evident when he fell ill last year and thousands gathered outside his hospital for news. The Argentinians love him not only because of his wonderful football ability - nobody played a bigger part in winning the 1986 World Cup than Maradona - but because they see him as a man of the people, one who has found the success to which they aspire.

Maradona was brought up in the shanty town of Villa Fiorito, where he shared a room with seven brothers and sisters. He went on to play for Boca Juniors, a club traditionally followed by the descamisados ("shirtless ones") from the poorer suburbs of Buenos Aires who also provided the Peron family with their strongest support.

Maradona entertained crowds with his ball-juggling skills at 10 years of age, made his professional debut at 15 and played for Argentina at 16. But at 18 was left out of the 1978 World Cup squad. And four years later, his first World Cup ended in disappointment when he was sent off against Brazil. He moved to Barcelona in the same year and to Italy two years later for world record fees of £3m and £5m. Within a fortnight of signing for Napoli, who went on to win the Italian league for the first time in their history, the club sold 70,000 season tickets.

His greatest triumph came in 1986, when he captained Argentina to World Cup glory. His two goals against England in the quarter-final perhaps summed up his career: one solo effort was one of the great World Cup goals, while the other depended on the "hand of God", palming rather than heading the ball past the England goalkeeper Peter Shilton.

The downward spiral began in 1991 when he was banned for 15 months after testing positive for cocaine. The most spectacular of his five subsequent comebacks was in the 1994 World Cup. He lost nearly a quarter of his body weight in the space of a month to prepare for the finals and enjoyed one moment of fleeting glory when he scored in Argentina's opening match, only to be thrown out of the event when he tested positive for a cocktail of drugs. His final comeback, for Boca Juniors in 1997 at the age of 36, was scuppered by yet another failed drugs test.

Drugs have played a major role throughout his adult life. He was regularly injected with cortisone to enable him to play through injuries, which were often suffered in brutal challenges from opponents; at Napoli he used to wear two pairs of shinpads in a vain attempt to protect himself. It was while in Italy that he developed a taste for recreational drugs and other pleasures of the flesh. Both before and after his wedding in Buenos Aires 15 years ago to Claudia Villafane (they are now divorced) kiss-and-tell stories were heard. As a result of one fling, Maradona lost a paternity suit, after which he was ordered to pay £2,000 a month to an Italian woman, Cristiana Sinagra, to help bring up their son, also called Diego Maradona. Diego Jnr has shown some of his father's talent as a footballer.

During his time in a psychiatric hospital last year, photographs appeared in a Mexican newspaper which were said to have been taken from a video shot at a party in Havana. In it, Maradona was allegedly snorting cocaine and having sex with his 19-year-old Cuban girlfriend in front of his friends. At another party in Cuba he dressed up as Osama bin Laden, armed with a toy machine-gun.

While his career has been blighted by repeated controversies - including an incident when journalists trying to doorstep his house were met by gunfire - such deep flaws to his genius ensure his popularity. When Fifa, international football's ruling body, conducted an internet poll to find the world's best player, more than 53 per cent voted for Maradona, compared with 18 per cent for Pele. Fifa quickly made a second award, voted for by a panel of luminaries, which ensured that Pele would also be honoured. However, he did not share the limelight with his rival at the gala awards ceremony: Maradona hurriedly left the stage before Pele could join him.

The Brazilian is in good company. Maradona, who has railed against US presidents and his own government, once accused Pope John Paul II of showing him a "total lack of respect" when they met in Rome: the pontiff gave him the same rosary as everybody else rather than a special one. The incident may have explained a later outburst: "I've been to the Vatican and seen the gold ceilings. And then I hear the Pope saying that the Church was concerned about poor kids. So? Sell the ceilings, mate! You've got nothing going for you. You were only a goalkeeper."

Not that Maradona falls out with everybody in high places. His friends include Fidel Castro (Maradona has tattoos of Castro and Che Guevara, the Argentinian revolutionary who helped bring the Cuban leader to power), Al-Saadi Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez.

Although he complains of financial problems (he has fallen out with his long-term business manager and Italian authorities ordered him earlier this year to pay a tax bill of £21m dating back to his time with Napoli), Mara-dona remains very much in demand by anyone looking for a public face.

His problem has often been his generosity. He paid for a large entourage to be with him - and to enjoy the off-the-field benefits - during his playing days in Europe. When he was playing for Argentina the national federation used to give him the additional money that it could charge for friendlies in which he played, which Maradona then readily shared with his colleagues.

Maradona, moreover, knows by now that happiness cannot be bought. He has talked of a reconciliation with his former wife, who stuck by him during his health problems last year and featured on this week's television show, along with their two daughters.

He also has to find something to replace the joy and fulfilment he experienced on the football field, which were evident in his goal celebrations, both before and after his playing career. While watching his beloved Boca Juniors or the national team via a satellite link during his years in retreat in Cuba, Maradona would sometimes celebrate goals by diving fully clothed into a swimming pool.

He has found a new sporting outlet in the form of golf (after discharging himself from hospital last year the first television pictures were of him playing in the dark with luminous balls), and he has thrown himself into a new role as a vice-president of Boca Juniors, making important decisions about the hiring and firing of coaches and the recruitment of players. Two months ago he chose the club's fourth coach in a year, the veteran Alfio Basile, while Boca have backed his judgement to the tune of nearly £1m - a large fee by Argentinan standards - to sign a player, Juan Krupoviesa, from Estudiantes de la Plata.

The Boca job has the potential to bring lasting fulfilment, but for the moment the television show will provide the focal point of Maradona's life. In next week's programme, he says he will "tell the truth about the goal against the English" in the 1986 World Cup. In his autobiography he wrote: "At the time I called it 'the hand of God'. Bollocks was it the hand of God, it was the hand of Diego!"

Perhaps he will expand on his comments in the book about how the victory over England brought revenge for his country's defeat in the Falklands War, when "a lot of Argentine kids died, shot down like little birds". Whatever he says, you can be sure it will not be constrained by discretion, good taste or modesty. But it will come from the heart.

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