Love and loathing in Buenos Aires: My life chasing Diego Maradona

Jimmy Burns has spent 16 years in pursuit of the Argentine, on a journey that has immersed him deep in a troubled world of adulation, abuse and raw survival. Now he retraces his footsteps

Monday 07 June 2010 00:00 BST

It's with mixed feelings that I see my biography of Diego Maradona hitting the streets – again. To be accurate, this is not so much a new book but the latest revised and updated edition of a tome I first completed back in 1996. Since then I have lost count of the number of editions that have been published around the world of "The Hand of God", in English, and translated into every conceivable language, from Dutch to Chinese.

There seems to be an enduring appetite for this flawed genius of the game of football that transcends cultures and nations, more so perhaps than that felt for any other sportsman, dead or alive. But chasing Diego over all these years, and keeping track of his helter-skelter life, off and on the pitch, has been an exciting as well as wasting experience. While following Maradona over the years has enhanced my love of football, my relationship with the player has seen love mixed in with loathing, for what he had done to himself, and what he did to me, with drugs and betrayal part of our shared experience.

Retracing Maradona's steps from the shanty town outside Buenos Aires where he was born to the psychologist's couch that formed part of his rehab, via the stadiums and inner secrets of clubs like Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli and Seville, and the higher political intrigues of Argentinian international football, brought me the game at its most magical and its most tragic, and all personified by one man's extraordinary capacity to come back from the dead, and live to see another day.

My latest encounter with Maradona began earlier this year when I revisited Buenos Aires, after a break of some years. Maradona turned down a formal interview but we ended up shadowing each other for a few days, in an apparent attempt to demonstrate how many demons we had or had not left behind us. I had by now recovered from the breakdown I partly blamed Diego for in the mid-1990s and Maradona himself seemed a man transformed. His latest act of irresponsible behaviour – a foul-mouthed and sexually abusive rant against some journalists when Argentina qualified for the World Cup – may have led to a dip in his poll ratings but it has since turned into a mere blip on a road to redemption in his new role as coach of the national team.

His past infidelities have been forgiven and he shares his luxury home near Buenos Aires airport with his latest girlfriend, the reclusive shopkeeper Veronica Ojeda, while his ex-wife Claudia manages his financial affairs. He is reconciled with his daughters, is a doting grandfather to the child of Giannina, the younger of his daughters and herself the wife of a footballer (Sergio Aguero of Atletico Madrid), and a supportive dad to the elder one, Dalma, a successful young actress.

I saw Dalma in a three-woman play in The Calle Corrientes, Buenos Aires's version of Broadway. It was the night after the opening, and the small theatre was packed with Maradona's family and friends. It was a gathering of face-lifts, ostentatious jewellery and tight-fitting Italian suits and dresses. It was like a scene from The Godfather, although there is no suggestion that the mafia was present, still less any drugs.

The play is no Shakespeare. Called Fire of Women, it is a tough contemporary satire about the generational gaps between a grandmother, mother and daughter (played by Dalma). The three spend most of the play shouting personal abuse at each other, only stopping occasionally when they hear the music of Sandro, Argentina's legendary pop star – the Latin American Elvis – who died just as the play was set to be premiered.

Dalma has the dark and somewhat demonic eyes of her father and seems to fit quite naturally into the role of a spoilt little bitch, mouthing bad language. She is overweight, and wears a permanent expression of an adolescent pout, which makes her perfect for the role of a bulimic teenager obsessed with her weight, her stage mother's lesbianism and her stage grandmother's endless facelifts. The play ends with the grandmother tricking daughter and granddaughter into a enclosed room, and setting light to the gas, so that all presumably perish. It is a nihilistic end to a terrible play which shows Argentina at its worst.

On the first night Maradona came along with Claudia, and posed for happy family snaps with Dalma clutching his gift of a large teddy bear. Maradona, who these days cuts a professorial air with his greying but healthy-looking beard, was on his best behaviour, charming with the media and playing the part of a doting dad almost to perfection. Friends say he hasn't touched the hard stuff in years.

Such is the public persona. And yet dig beneath the surface and Maradona remains the same unpredictable, erratic genius I first encountered as his biographer. Thus I was not surprised to hear, just a few days ago, how he insulted an injured cameraman after accidentally running over his leg ahead of the announcement of the Argentina squad. "What an asshole you are," Maradona shouted from his car, "How can you put your legs there where it can get run over, man?"

His occasional descent into violence – of word or deed – is the product as much of his environment as of his inner demons: his upbringing in the lawless lands of the shanty town, the paranoia which hangs over from his long-term drug abuse, the hangers-on and opportunists who have made their own habit of making use of him.

Argentina is Latin America's failed state, forever falling short of its huge economic potential. It is noted for the corruption prevalent among its politicians and businessmen, and the wheeler-dealers that pervade the football industry, from top to bottom. It is a world Maradona moves in and out of with ease, the vested interests, including TV companies and sponsors, ensuring that despite his human failings and his wasted brilliance he is allowed to give more of himself. For all his public raging against the establishment, Maradona has spent most of his adult life being nourished as much by the powerful as by the hard-core fans that venerate him from Buenos Aires to Baghdad. His arrogance and natural vindictiveness have dented his popularity in particular among English fans who have never forgiven him for that cheating first hand-ball goal in Mexico in 1986. But among his loyal fans, the collective memory hangs on the moments of sheer magic he produced as a player, a natural talent that learnt to control a ball in the dust before becoming rich.

On my recent return journey to Argentina – a country where I lived and worked for several years – I made a point of checking out the southern Buenos Aires neighbourhood of La Boca, where the myth of Maradona as the people's idol has endured the longest. I found myself arriving late, behind busloads of tourists converging on the area. Amid the tango dancers and pavement painters, the no less mercenary Maradona lookalikes – dressed in the Argentina national colours – balanced a football on their feet for less than a minute and charged $10. Nearby a statue of Maradona looked out from the second floor of a brightly coloured house once inhabited by a fisherman. There was a statue or a mural dedicated to Maradona almost on every corner of La Boca. The most solid remembrance was a large bronze statue at the entrance to the museum at La Bombonera, the Boca Juniors stadium. It is self-consciously heroic, like that of a Rocky Balboa, and less a work of art than a movie prop.

Boca Juniors is the club Maradona has always claimed is closest to his soul. Boca likes to see itself as the home of the marginalised, drawing to its bosom the dark-skinned Maradona lookalikes. Murals and sculptures have immortalised Maradona in and around La Bombonera, the stadium that has received him as player and fanatical fan. The museum is dedicated to a litany of eccentric legends from Rattin the Rat to Gatti the madman, although Maradona retains pride of place as the undisputed greatest of them all.

What the museum doesn't tell you is that Diego should have died some time in the 20th century – ideally soon after the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 – or hung up his boots there and then, aged 25, three years older than Leo Messi is now, for no other reason than pure vanity, knowing that the history books had recorded the best goal of all time – his second against England, a claim that was unlikely to be revised.

But Diego chose his own way of seeing out the 20th century and being in the first decade of the new millennium because he believes that God is on his side. At least that is what he has felt from the moment he was a toddler and he stumbled and fell into an open sewer in the backyard of his family hut, only to be rescued by his uncle Cirilo. One can lose count of how many times since then Diego has fallen, as the Italians say, from the stars to the stable, only to be resurrected, but my fate has been to have to follow every latest twist in his crazy, surreal existence.

My first edition seemed to reach a conveniently dramatic conclusion with the World Cup of 1994, when Maradona, after testing positive for a banned substance, was expelled from the tournament and seemed to quit international football, putting to an end a life rarely absent from the headlines.

Within six years, however, I found myself at the end of a transatlantic phone call informing me that Maradona had narrowly escaped surviving his version of a millennium binge and was in an intensive care unit in Uruguay. In that January of 2000 Maradona stared death in the face. Grossly overweight and over-dosed and suffering from a heart condition that he had inherited from his father, he collapsed while on vacation in the Uruguayan resort of Punta Del Este. Maradona's friend, the then Argentina president Carlos Menem, put it all down to a "stress attack". Later the Uruguayan police revealed that analysis of Maradona's blood and urine showed "excessive consumption of cocaine".

The exclusive bedside TV images, which his then manager Guillermo Coppola had negotiated on his client's behalf, showed Maradona recovering. But he had put on four stone since he had last quit playing, some three years earlier, after another brief comeback. He was bloated and puffy-eyed, and was hanging on. If it had been almost anybody else, Maradona would have died that day. But then his resilience, or mere good fortune, has always baffled his doctors and tormented his biographer.

But I'll rewind this story to an evening in September 1996 when Maradona sat facing me across a table of an Italian restaurant in London, looking at the first edition of my book about him which had just been delivered by the publishers. After months of chasing him around the world, I hoped this warts-and-all bio would be a defining moment by which I could measure his willingness to come to terms with himself.

And yet this was destined not to be a night of revelations. Maradona saved his reaction for a few days later while he was visiting the southern Spanish resort of Alicante for a "health cure". Pouring out his latest confession about his drug addiction, Maradona slammed all those who had helped me detail its consequences for the first time, accusing them of betrayal. "Burns has pissed all over me," he declared live on Spanish radio.

Hours later, Maradona went on a bender. In the early hours he returned to his hotel in a state of mind that one eye witness described as "very strange and disturbed". Maradona then got stuck in the lift when the electrics failed. He kicked the doors of the lift until his foot bled. After the fire brigade rescued him, he went on kicking out at tables and chairs, screaming until daybreak when the hotel management presented him with a bill for the damage.

Approaching the age of 37, past his sell-by date as a player and staring into the abyss, it seemed that this might be the start of the final stage of Maradona's turbulent life. But he had fallen from the stars to the stable before, only to get up again. I was stuck with him.

A few weeks earlier Maradona had announced he was quitting Boca Juniors after missing five penalties in a crucial phase of the local league championship. The man who had invoked a benign Deity in justifying his cheat goal against the English in Mexico 1986, now blamed "witches" for casting a negative spell on him. This mixing of football with God held a certain fascination for me as a Catholic. The reality, I was to discover, was that Maradona was continuing to struggle with a drug problem for which he was seeking help from an array of doctors. Senior officials of Boca Juniors privately warned that they feared Maradona might fatally collapse in the middle of a match, his heart simply giving up under the strain of his drug abuse.

And yet nothing with Maradona ever turns out quite like others would have it, and within days of his collapse in Uruguay he was residing in Havana, Cuba, courtesy of his friend Fidel Castro, with the financial support system in overdrive as Maradona's agent touted more exclusive interviews and photographs to an insatiable posse of hacks. Maradona spoke of himself in the third person, mocking the self-delusion of those who had predicted his imminent demise. "Diego Maradona will only ascend to heaven when all four Beatles are waiting to meet him," he declared.

In 2001, within a year of his rehab in Havana, I witnessed Maradona – not for the first or last time in his life – shedding public tears. He was crying with the emotion of knowing there were still enough Argentines around who respected him so much that they couldn't accept anybody else taking his No 10 shirt, even at this point in his life when he was really saying goodbye, again. The shirt, signed by Argentina's class of 2001 – the likes not just of Saviola but of Gabriel Batistuta, Javier Zanetti, Hernan Crespo, Juan Roman Riquelme, Andrew D'Alessandro, Marcelo Gallardo, Pablo Aimar, and Veron – was handed to Maradona at a testimonial match between an Argentine XI led by himself and a Rest of the World XI, part of which seemed like a rogues gallery – bad boys, gifted players, legends of the past, men like Carlos Valderrama, Hristo Stoichkov, Eric Cantona and Rene Higuita.

The day of the testimonial Maradona wore his No 10, and waited until a local rock group called The Paranoid Rats finished their dedicatory verse: "I want Diego to play for ever," they sang. He then walked out into La Bombonera, his beloved coliseum, just as he had done on countless occasions before, to the roar of 60,000 fanatical fans, gladiator of the people, sacrificed on the altar of popular adulation, with his two young daughters at his side. The stadium was as steamy and frenetic as a caravan caught up in a desert storm, draped with the blue and yellow colours of Boca and the blue and white of Argentina. The barras bravas packed the terraces. They bounced with joy, chanting "Maradoo, Maradoo" and unfurling a giant banner with the words "Thank You, Diego".

And yet there was no championship at stake this time in La Bombonera. Maradona's enduring self-belief was focused on the uncontested crown as the greatest player that ever graced the turf. The reality check showed that the man trotting across the pitch looked a trifle overweight for his 40 years, at 84 kilos.

There remained in Maradona a desperate unfulfilled need to find a meaning to his life, to recover a sense of purpose, to harness his talent and genius for the game. Back in 1997, just before another descent into drugs, over-eating, and over-drinking, Diego had not only promised to help Boca become great again. He also pledged to help Argentina qualify for the 1998 World Cup in France, with him playing in the national team. It didn't turn out quite that way at the time. The fulfilment of the dream was postponed for another day although the urge for self-justification persisted.

And so Diego is now in South Africa, not as a player but as coach, preparing his squad for a tournament that could turn out to be the crowning achievement of his career, just as it might end up sounding its latest and possibly definitive death knell. Part of me is resisting this latest attempt to draw me back into his unsettling world, with its anarchic unpredictability, too often masquerading as divine intervention.

The late Graham Greene used to claim that he spent half his adult life being haunted by "another Graham Greene", a mysterious man who claimed to be the real him. My experience as Maradona's biographer has been somewhat analogous. A process of osmosis, whereby the biographer absorbed something of his subject, threatened me from the early days of my investigation of Maradona's life and times, playing havoc with my own being and circumstances, in a seemingly never-ending tug-of-war between recollection and renewal that I have struggled with ever since. Argentina's opening match will find me in the US promoting my latest literary catharsis, a book of a discovery about my father being a Second World War spook, called Papa Spy.

My Dad died just as I was finishing the first edition of Hand of God. He seems once again to be competing for my feelings and attention with Diego. For hard as I might wish that I've put the life of Maradona behind me, instinct tells me that at least one further chapter will follow, whatever the outcome this summer.

A special World Cup paperback edition of Maradona: The Hand of God by Jimmy Burns is published this week by Bloomsbury. To purchase a copy for the special price of £7.50, call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Diego's life and times

1960 Born: October 30 as the fifth of eight children

1976 Debut for Argentinos Juniors, aged 15.

1977 Argentina debut, against Hungary at 16.

1981 Transferred to Boca Juniors for £1m

1982 After the World Cup, signed for Barcelona for world record £5m.

1984 Transferred for another world record fee, £6.9m, to Napoli.

1986 Lifts the World Cup for Argentina and wins player of the tournament.

1987 Leads Napoli to their first Serie A title and wins the Italian cup.

1989 Wins the Uefa Cup in the most successful era in Napoli's history.

1990 Wins Napoli's second title but is the losing captain in the World Cup final.

1991 Handed a 15-month ban for being found positive in a doping test. Charged by police for possession of cocaine. Fined £2000 and given 14-month suspended sentence. Investigated for tax irregularities, organised crime links and trafficking. Sued by Napoli for damaging club's image and fined $70,000 for missing matches and training.

1992 Refuses to return to Napoli, demands a transfer and joins Seville.

1993 Leaves Seville for Newell's Old Boys in Argentina, but is thrown out of the club after being found with half a kilo of cocaine, but only sentenced to rehabilitation. Italian courts rule he has an illegitimate son.

1994 Scores against Greece in the World Cup but tests positive for ephedrine and excluded from the rest of the competition. Takes his first coaching spell at Deportivo Mandiyu of Corrientes but resigns two-months later.

1995 Second coaching spell with Racing lasts four months before resigning, makes playing comeback for Boca Juniors.

1997 Fails another drugs test and retires from football on his 37th birthday.

2000 Develops a severe heart condition due to cocaine abuse – moves to Cuba for two years for rehab.

2004 Divorces, but ex-wife Claudia remains his agent. Health depreciates, becomes obese, weighing in at 20 stone. Suffers a cocaine overdose. Admitted to intensive care after a heart attack.

2005 Undergoes life-saving gastric bypass surgery. Returns to Boca as Sports Vice-President in a successful spell for the club. Mainstream television talk-show debuts – interviewing the likes of Pele, Fidel Castro and Mike Tyson.

2007 Re-admitted to hospital for hepatitis and alcohol abuse. Transferred to a psychiatric clinic. Appears on television saying he has quit drinking and has been off drugs for two years.

2008 Takes over as coach of Argentina national team.

2009 Italian officials announced he still owed the Italian government €37m in taxes (€23.5m of which was interest).

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