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Sun King who came crashing to earth

Diego Maradona and the Statue of Liberty aren't often compared but in 1986 they both celebrated milestones ? the Footballing genius almost singlehandedly leading Argentina to World Cup glory and old Lady Liberty her 100th birthday.
PTI | By Pirate Irwin (AFP)
UPDATED ON APR 21, 2004 05:10 PM IST

Diego Maradona and the Statue of Liberty aren't often compared but in the summer of 1986 they both celebrated milestones — the Argentine footballing genius almost singlehandedly leading his team to World Cup glory and old Lady Liberty her 100th birthday.

However while she has progressed seamlessly to her 118th anniversary Maradona lies attached to a ventilator in a hospital bed aged just 43 — the culmination of years of drug abuse and unhealthy living.

Maradona's 'Hand of God' goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final was not dissimilar to the pose of the Statue of Liberty as he stretched up his arm into the air and fisted the ball over goalkeeper Peter Shilton — a second superb individual goal was not to wipe away the memories of the first 'foul' effort.

However while Lady Liberty signifies freedom the barrelchested playmaker has tasted little of that since the moment he lifted the World Cup trophy after defeating the then West Germany in the final in Mexico City.

Like an Emperor who has no-one to tell him otherwise he surrounded himself with lackeys and hangers on who encouraged his drug habits and drained his once huge fortune made in his years at Barcelona and then Napoli.

While he and Brazilian striker Careca raised the Italian side from mediocrities to champions, Maradona collapsed personally as he sampled the cocaine offered liberally by the organised crime gang of the Camorra and sewed the seeds of his first drugs ban from the sport in 1991.

It had not stopped an albeit slower Maradona from somehow taking the team to a second successive World Cup final — scraping through two of their knockout matches on penalties — where this time West Germany avenged the 1986 defeat by winning 1-0.

However it was not the inspirational player of old but an argumentative and flabbier version who did nothing to quell the more vicious elements in his side who were barely able to assemble enough players for the final because of suspensions — and had two more sent off during the final.

Just as when in the 1986 finals he redeemed himself following his exit in disgrace in the 1982 edition when he was sent off in the defeat by Italy — admittedly after some rough stuff at the hands of the ultimate hardman Claudio Gentile — he looked to be doing the same in the 1994 renewal.

A revitalised Maradona and team looked the part in the first round though his extraordinary celebration after scoring against Greece — when his slavering face splattered spittle all over a tv camera — provoked one English pundit to comment, on being asked how he would have reacted if he had received the same treatment, 'I would have punched him in the face'.

Instead of a punch he received a knockout blow as he failed a drugs test and was thrown out of the tournament and in his sadly deluded manner claimed a FIFA stitch up because he was always challenging them — several of his team-mates never spoke to him again.

A brave but disheartened side went out to Romania in the last 16.

Midfielder Diego Simeone for one will never forget the experience.

"There we were playing beautiful football and looking like champions in waiting and blam! One individual's bad habits ripped the heart out of the team. I shall never forgive him," said the three-time World Cup veteran two years ago.

There is a lesson to be learnt from how Maradona's fellow FIFA footballer of all-time Pele managed to keep his life together despite coming from equally impecunious circumstances — the pity is it may all be too late for the once proud hero of the summer of 86.

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