Argentines remain faithful to Diego

Updated on Apr 22, 2004 07:34 PM IST

It's almost a decade since Diego Maradona was kicked out of the 1994 WC for failing a doping test.

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PTI | ByBrian Homewood (Reuters), Buenos Aires

It is nearly a decade since Diego Maradona was kicked out of the 1994 World Cup for failing a doping test.

In those 10 years, Maradona has stumbled from one personal crisis to another.

He has been dogged by drugs abuse, had an attempted playing comeback stopped in its tracks after he tested positive for cocaine in his first match and three failed attempts to enter the world of coaching.

It is a catalogue of problems which, if he were another player in another country, could have led to him being considered an outcast.

Yet, Argentines have refused to allow Maradona's decline cloud their memories of his achievements on the football pitch.

In spite of all his troubles, it is extremely rare to find an Argentine who has a bad word to say about him.

The 43-year-old has spent all this week in the intensive care unit of a Buenos Aires clinic attached to a respirator after heart and breathing problems on Sunday.

While his plight is desperate, it has brought yet more proof of his staggering popularity.

Dozens of supporters have been keeping a vigil outside the Suizo-Argentino clinic where he is being treated, making so much noise that the management have been forced to ask for quiet out of consideration for the other 160 patients.

Even supporters of River Plate, arch-rivals of Maradona's beloved club Boca Juniors, have been taking part. Candles have been lit and the walls have been plastered with messages of support.

Many people have travelled from the provinces, including three unemployed youths who told reporters they had managed to hitch a lift in a lorry by holding out a message that read: "Take us to Buenos Aires to see Maradona."


In between all his troubles, Maradona has always made a point of remembering his humble origins -- unlike his arch-rival Pele, who has often been accused in his native Brazil of abandoning his roots.

Maradona once said: "When I go onto the field, I never forget there are thousands of kids who dream of being where I am."

An avid admirer of Che Guevara, he has never been afraid to speak out on politics and has been a fierce critic of the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

He also took on world soccer's governing body FIFA, bitterly criticising them for staging World Cup matches in midday heat, and attempted to form a trade union for top footballers.

Three years ago, he hit out at the Argentine government for voting against Cuba -- where he has spent the last three years undergoing drugs rehabilitation -- at the United Nations Commission of Human Rights.

Many believe Maradona as a victim rather than culprit, pointing out that after rising from poverty to lead his team to World Cup victory in 1986, he has virtually been looked upon as a cash machine by some entrepreneurs.

"The upper class and some politicians made Diego believe he was something that he wasn't," former Argentina coach Cesar Luis Menotti told the Chilean newspaper La Tercera in an interview.

"They invited him to their tables to use him and profit from his figure. The economic powers took advantage of him directly,

"This is not something new, it's been happened for years, even (late Brazilian winger) Garrincha had to put up with these 'friends.'"

Like other Argentines, Menotti, who upset Maradona by refusing to include him in the 1978 World Cup, preferred to remember "Dieguito" for his brilliance on the pitch.

"We have to treat him as an ex-player, full stop," he said.

"Talking about Diego is synonymous with talking about Argentina. When one travels to Asia, Africa or Oceania, you realise that for the rest of the world, he is still the player who won the World Cup in 1986."

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