Maradona casts spell at world’s crossroads

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — I can still hear the Mexican sportscaster shouting in the radio for more than a minute — “Dieguitooooo, Dieguitoooooo, Diego Armando Maradonaaaaaaa!” — after the Argentine soccer player scored his second goal against the British during the 1986 World Cup that Argentina would go on to win after beating West Germany in the final game.

He had good reason to shout. Diego Armando Maradona — now Argentina’s coach at the World Cup in South Africa — had scored his second goal after dribbling past six British players (including the goalkeeper) in what is commonly called the “The Goal of the Century.”

Never mind that his first goal during that game was the most infamous in soccer history, made by striking the ball with his left hand. Maradona was initially evasive about the goal, saying it had been scored “a little with Maradona’s head and a little with the hand of God.” Since then, that goal has been attributed to the “Hand of God” (La Mano de Dios).

Only in 2005 did Maradona acknowledge that he had used his hand on purpose and that he knew the goal was invalid. The goal stood, to the dismay of the British players.

As a special tribute to him, Mexican officials at the Aztec Stadium where the game took place built a statue of him scoring the second goal and placed it at the entrance to the stadium. That helped ensure he would be remembered as one of the greatest players in soccer history.

In March 2010, The Times of London chose him as No. 1 among The Greatest 10 World Cup players of all time.

For decades Diego Maradona has been the most admired — and the most reviled — sportsman in the world. But whether one likes him or not, nobody can deny his unique character in the world of sports.

In trips I’ve taken to several countries around the world I always found the same reaction after saying I was an Argentine. Maradona! Maradona! people shouted. It could be a small city in China or a remote town in Africa. Everybody knew Maradona. And now, as coach for the Argentine team in the South African World Cup, people are still talking about him.

He was an unlikely soccer star, since he is short in height. His two sturdy legs, however, seemed to anchor him to the ground. He could dribble past his opponents with maniacal speed and dexterity, as he did during the 1986 World Cup. He was a generous player on the pitch, always passing the ball to a better-placed teammate.

As great as his gifts as a player were, so were his personal shortcomings. While playing in Italy for the Napoli team — making it the most successful in its history and leading it to its only two Italian Championships in 1986-87 and 1989-90 and to the Coppa Italia in 1987 — he intensified his cocaine habit for which he was given steep fines and was suspended from soccer for 15 months in 1991.

In 1994 he was sent home from the World Cup in the United States for using ephedrine. He retired from soccer in 1997.

He has suffered from serious health problems and gained considerable weight, besides continuing his use of cocaine. In 2005, a stomach-stapling operation helped him overcome his weight problem, and after stopping his cocaine addiction, he became a popular television host in Argentina.

In 2008, despite his lack of managerial experience, he was named head coach of the Argentine soccer team. Several defeats of the team in international games caused many to doubt his technical capacity as a coach.

But Maradona continues to be well . . . Maradona. He is still his same, defiant, arrogant self. Much as I dislike his antics, I am still thankful to him.

Years ago, after finishing work in Bangladesh, I was at the airport when a customs officer asked me if I had any cash with me. I told him $2,000.

“Then where is the form that you have to fill out?” he asked.

“What form?” I responded.

The officer started yelling: “You damned foreigners are all the same! You come to this country, make money, don’t pay taxes and then just leave, without caring about anything!”

Startled, I mumbled a response.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Argentina.”

“Oh, Argentina,” he said, suddenly overwhelmed. “Maradona, Maradona, just continue, Sir, please, there is no problem, no problem at all!”

Cesar Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is a writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.