The wayward genius

Updated on Apr 21, 2004 01:26 PM IST

He would lose miserably to Pele in a popularity contest but soccer fans are divided over just who was the greatest ever player.

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PTI | ByRon Wall (AFP), Paris

Diego Maradona would lose miserably to Pele in a popularity contest but soccer fans are divided over just who was the world's greatest ever player.

The stocky 1.68m (5ft 6in) footballing genius has never been far from controversy.

He was twice banned for drugs, linked with the Mafia when he was playing for Napoli in Italy, and scored his most famous goal with his hand.

The "Hand of God" incident came during Argentina's 2-1 win over England in the World Cup quarter-finals on June 22, 1986, in the first match between the two countries since the Falklands War four years earlier.

In front of 114,580 spectators in Mexico City's Aztec Stadium, Maradona punched the ball over England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and fooled Tunisian referee Ali Bennaceur into believing he had headed the ball.

Maradona never admitted it was a handball, even though TV replays showed it clearly was, famously insisting that the "Hand of God" helped the ball into the net.

He later in the same game scored what was regarded as one of the best goals of all-time.

He drifted past Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid on the halfway line and then glided past two more England defenders, Terry Fenwick and Terry Butcher, before dummying and rounding Shilton to make it 2-0 for a goal in a million.

He had been kicked so regularly by defenders that by 1990 he was lucky to start the tournament in Italy where a mean Argentine side reached the final only to lose to West Germany after becoming the first side to have a man sent off in the final.

Before that, Maradona had proved his class against Brazil when he was heavily marked. He escaped just once but it was enough to set up Claudio Caniggia for the winner.

Maradona's best moments were with the Argentine national team, although he did help Napoli win their first Italian league title.

"The things I could do with a football, he could do with an orange," French star Michel Platini once said.

Superb balance and an unbelievable left foot quickly marked him out as a potential great.

But Argentina coach Cesar Luis Menotti thought the Pibe de Oro - kid of gold - was too young for the 1978 World Cup which was held in Argentina. He was 17, the same age as Pele when the Brazilian broke onto the World stage in the 1958 finals in Sweden.

But Maradona was a regular by the time the 1982 finals came along in Spain although he failed to live up to his star billing and was sent off in the defeat to Italy after retaliating when kicked once too often by Italian hard man Claudio Gentile.

Mexico 1986 was another matter entirely.

And he overcome a serious ankle injury to help Argentina to the 1990 final.

But things were going downhill fast.

He received a 15-month suspension in 1991 when testing positive for cocaine while playing in Italy's Serie A.

He was overweight and injured but fought his way back to fitness in time for the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

But it soon became clear how he had rediscovered his form when, after helping Argentina beat Greece and Nigeria, he failed a drugs test for the banned stimulant ephedrine - and was sent home.

His team-mates were quick to follow after losing to Bulgaria and Romania.

In 2000, in Uruguay, Maradona suffered a severe heart crisis due to a cocaine overdose.

Maradona has been battling drug addiction for years and returned to Argentina from Cuba where his friend Fidel Castro had been helping him get healthy.

But since a bloated Maradona returned to Argentina, speculation and concern has grown over his health.

And on Sundey he was rushed into intensive care in hospital after reports of a massive heart attack.

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