←cont from: Maradona: The Scandals
The most famous man in Argentina has not been able to settle down to a quiet life of retirement since leaving football. Drug and weight problems have continued to dog him. He underwent gastric bypass surgery in 2005 and has been to rehab on numerous occasions, most notably in 2000 and 2004, on both occasions suffering severe damage to his heart. Despite quitting drugs since, Maradona’s most recent trip to hospital was in 2007, after a binge of drinking, smoking cigars and eating to excessive levels saw his body collapse once more. He has also publicly supported Fidel Castro (and has the tattoo to prove it) and controversial Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez. He declared on the latter’s TV program, “I hate everything that comes from the United States. I hate it with all my strength.”
On a less serious note, he has continued a running battle over the years with the other ‘greatest player of all time,’ Pele. The two trade insults regularly through the media, although the highlight (or lowlight) was probably when Pele fired a few barbs Diego’s way about his moral standards, and Maradona responded by telling Marca, “What do you want me to say? He lost his virginity to a man!”
In spite of all the controversy, Maradona remains immensely popular in Argentina. Argentinian psychologist and author Gustavo Bernstein wrote in his book, Maradona: Iconografia de la Patria (Icon of the Nation), “No one embodies our essence more. Argentina is Maradona. Maradona is Argentina.”
A group called ‘The Church of Maradona’ claims to be an official religion and boasts 100,000 members. For them, year zero is the year their idol was born— 1960.
For a few months in 2005, he even hosted his own talk show, “The Night of 10” (after his playing number) which scored sensational ratings throughout its run of 13 episodes. Guests included Fidel Castro, Mike Tyson and even Pele (the two were remarkable civil, even chummy, on this occasion).
It is this very popularity that earned Diego Maradona, an almost completely inexperienced trainer, the unlikely opportunity to coach his beloved Argentina at the World Cup. With the team struggling in qualifiers, and previous coach Alfio Basile deciding to quit his post, Argentinian Football Federation members decided to pander to popular will and name Maradona as the next coach. The decision was met with disbelief throughout the footballing world, and even among a lot of Argentina fans. They were prepared to love him as a player, but could someone whose behavior could be described as, at best, erratic, actually lead the powerful national team to success? In the end, despite the talent of the Argentina team, the answer was no.
Maradona has overseen a typically unpredictable qualifying campaign, which saw the team suffer heavy defeats to the mighty Brazil, and the minnows Bolivia. Eventually in the preliminary rounds the crucial games were won, though, Diego once again courted controversy by telling critical journalists that they could, “Suck it, and keep sucking it!” Before naming his, of course surprising, final squad to take to the tournament in South Africa, Diego managed to run over a cameraman’s leg in his car. Rather than stopping to apologize, he drove off shouting, “What an asshole you are! How could you put your leg under the wheel, man?”
Whatever happens after the World Cup, if it involves Maradona, it is guaranteed to be entertaining. He will no doubt continue to surprise the world. He probably even surprises himself sometimes.
In a grainy interview in 1975 with a pubescent Maradona, he comes across as shy but determined. “I have two dreams,” he says with self-assurance that contains none of his later braggadocio. “My first dream is to play in the World Cup. And the second dream is to win it.” Even that shaggy-haired teenager, already confident in his own talent, probably didn’t dare to imagine that one day he would be entrusted to lead Argentina to the World Cup, not as a player, but as the guy in the suit: the coach. The tournament in South Africa proved that greatness on the field does not necessarily translate to greatness off it, however. Maradona, who constantly claimed that God was on his side during Argentina’s campaign, was demoralized to the point of tears after his team’s loss to Germany in the quarter final. After calls by many for Maradona to step down as coach, the Argentinian Football Federation chief, Julio Grondona refused to fire him, saying, “The decision depends on Maradona. The only person in Argentina who can do whatever he wants is Diego.” Yes, that sounds about right, actually.
—by Dan Colasimone