An icon's flawed finish

Diego Maradonas coaching stint with Argentina was as slapdash as his life on and off the pitch
Last Updated 31 July 2010, 15:19 IST

But his popularity among fans, and even the backing of President Cristina Fernandez, was not enough to keep him in the job, and football chiefs voted unanimously last Tuesday not to renew his contract.

Maradona, 49, rose from a shanty town to become one of the world's greatest sportsmen, plunged the depths of drug abuse and then bounced back to play a starring role on the touchline in at the World Cup in South Africa.

In his homeland, he is widely considered to have been a greater player even than Brazil's Pele and has gained the iconic status of fellow Argentines Che Guevara and Eva Peron.
Best remembered for leading Argentina to World Cup victory in 1986 when he scored arguably the greatest goal the tournament had ever seen against England, he attracted a vigil outside his hospital when he spent 10 days in intensive care in 2004.

For some, though, his career will always be tarnished by his notorious 'Hand of God' goal against England at the same World Cup and his expulsion from the 1994 finals for a doping offence, one of three such bans in his brilliant but tormented career.

A stocky man who stands only 1.64 metres tall, Maradona's magical skills and electric pace were dulled only by injury and a tendency towards being overweight later in his career. The fifth of eight children of a factory worker, he grew up in the Villa Fiorito shanty town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Discovered in street kickabouts by the scout for Argentine first division club Argentinos Juniors, Francisco Cornejo, the football prodigy made his league debut at 15. His international debut followed two years later, although he was left out of the 1978 World Cup squad by Cesar Luis Menotti in a decision which remains controversial even now.
Maradona won his only Argentine league title with Boca Juniors, the club closest to his heart, in 1981 but by then his marvellous close control, free-kicks and passing had attracted the attention of wealthy European clubs.

He had two unhappy seasons at Barcelona, marred by illness and injury, before moving to Napoli in 1984. Maradona enjoyed the status of a demi-god in the poverty-stricken southern Italian port and, with a team built around him, helped transform a mediocre club into one of the best in Italy, winning two "Scudetto" titles and a UEFA Cup.

But after 1990, drugs and alcohol began taking over. In 1991, Maradona was handed a 15-month worldwide suspension for doping and called to trial in Naples over alleged links with a vice ring. He was banned again for 15 months after testing positive for drugs at the 1994 World Cup in the United States. On his return to Argentina, he was convicted for an earlier incident when he fired an airgun at reporters, receiving a two-year suspended jail sentence.

In between, he had playing spells at Sevilla, Newell's Old Boys and Boca where missed training sessions became the norm. He also tried his hand at coaching, firstly with struggling provincial club Deportivo Mandiyu and then with more fashionable Racing Club. His 23 games in charge produced only three wins.

He retired from professional soccer in 1997 after failing another doping test and almost died from cocaine-induced heart problems in 2000. For the next five years, he underwent drug rehabilitation living on-and-off in Cuba and socialising with Fidel Castro.

Argentine media obsessed over Maradona's addictive personality, with blanket coverage of his 10 days in intensive care in 2004, a gastric bypass operation the following year and his 2007 spell in hospital for alcohol-induced hepatitis. Drug and alcohol experts called Maradona's abuse of one substance after another a slow-motion suicide.

Maradona's appointment as Argentina coach in November 2008 thrust the team into the unknown. At first, he looked lost as a series of embarrassing defeats left Argentina in danger of failing to qualify for this year's World Cup.  But once in South Africa, he revelled in the spotlight, putting on his own show on the touchline as his team won four games in a row to reach the quarterfinals.

It ended in tears, however, when a disorganised Argentina were routed 4-0 by old enemies Germany leaving Maradona to face what he called the hardest day of his life.  "This was (like) a punch from Muhammad Ali. I have no strength for anything," he said at the time.

(Published 31 July 2010, 15:17 IST)

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