Diego Maradona God's Gift to Argentina?
Soccer legend Diego Maradona has given his fans much cause for concern in recent years. Now he's the coach of the national squad, and many of his countrymen hope he can restore the team to its bygone glory. Yet Argentina's prospects for World Cup victory will likely be decided by another -- Lionel Messi.
The bus that transports the Argentine national soccer squad pulls onto the Avenida Peralta Ramos in Mar del Plata, a bathing resort on Argentina's Atlantic coast, just after 2 p.m. The team is due to play a friendly game against Jamaica that evening. It parks in front of the entrance to the Gran Hotel Provincial, where the squad is staying. In six hours' time, the players and their coach, Diego Armando Maradona, will be driven to the stadium. Maradona will walk the 20 steps from the hotel to the bus. During those 20 steps, he won't give any interviews, but merely wave briefly, and board the bus.
"Everything's been calm so far," a young woman at reception says. A first group of 10 fans has gathered by the bus. Maradona and his clan arrived the day before. Now he stands in the hotel lobby smoking a cigar. Since his appointment as the national coach, Maradona has worn little else but the team's official tracksuit. He loves this tracksuit the way Fidel Castro loves his uniform.
Eventually Maradona stubs his cigar out on the floor, and leaves the lobby. His posture is upright, though his belly bulges beneath his tracksuit top.
Maradona reaches the conference room, looking satisfied. The press conference focuses on Juan Román Riquelme, a playmaker at the Buenos Aires club Boca Juniors who stubbornly refuses to play for Argentina because he considers Maradona to be an incompetent coach. The journalists ask Maradona about him: Argentina doesn't have a classic playmaker, so couldn't Riquelme perhaps provide the support the team desperately needs in midfield?
"We qualified for the World Cup Finals without him," Maradona says. "We don't need him."
But surely there's no harm in having more creativity in midfield, is there?
Maradona is bored. He's not interested in Riquelme. And in any case, his cigar has gone out. He says: "I think only men should be allowed to wear the national squad's jersey."
Revenge for the Falklands War
Someone passes Maradona a cardboard box containing the new Argentina strip. Maradona dutifully holds it up in front of the cameras. The jersey is dark blue. The Argentine Soccer Federation insisted on the color. It's part of the master plan. It therefore simply had to be dark blue -- just like in 1986.
Argentina last won the World Cup in Mexico in the summer of 1986. In the quarterfinal, the team in dark blue beat England thanks to two goals from Maradona. One he famously scored with his hand -- a goal which should have been disallowed. The other was possibly one of the best ever goals in World Cup history, in which Maradona dribbled past Peter Beardsley, Peter Reid, Terry Butcher, Terry Fenwick, and finally goalkeeper Peter Shilton. For many Argentines this was sweet revenge for their bitter defeat at the hands of the British in the 1982 Falklands War. Since that game, Maradona has been on a pedestal alongside Che Guevara, Eva Peron and the famous tango singer Carlos Gardel in the eyes of his countrymen.
The year 1986 is the reason why Maradona is now the national coach. He was certainly not the logical choice. Letting Maradona lead a national squad is anything but logical. Brave perhaps, somewhat far-fetched, crazy even, but not logical. He is 49 years old, a convicted former junkie who owes the Italian state more than 35 million ($42 million) in tax and has undergone several attempts at rehab. Just over a year before he was named national coach in October 2008, he was lounging in a psychiatric hospital because of his problems with alcohol.
But Argentina is a land of dreamers, who prefer reveries about the glorious past, and the glorious future that must surely lie ahead, to the present. And Diego Maradona is still the best proof Argentines have that miracles are possible. The belief that Maradona's magic will return simply because of his physical proximity to a soccer field is neither sensible nor logical. Yet it's the Argentine way.
A police car gives a blast of its siren to shoo away some children sitting on the hot curb in front of the hotel. The officers get out, saunter over to the team bus, walk around it, and then eye the group of people that has gathered by the entrance to the hotel. There are now about 30 of them milling around. "We'll need reinforcements," one of the officers says.
It's still four hours before Maradona is due to leave the hotel.
Dr. Alfredo Cahe runs a clinic on Calle Uruguay in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital. Cahe is Maradona's personal physician. Every week he checks his blood pressure and asks what he's been eating. Maradona usually lies to him, and claims he's had plenty of fruit and vegetables. Then the two men sit down to a cup of Mate tea. Every two months, Maradona is given a complete head-to-toe health screen at the clinic.
Cahe is a small, thin man with the lovely sing-song accent typical of the people of Buenos Aires. He's been at Maradona's side for more than 30 years. When they first met, Maradona was still a small boy from the Villa Fiorito slum. The boy liked the calm doctor. And if Maradona likes someone, he adopts them, and never lets them go again.
An Historic Opportunity
Cahe was present when Maradona signed his first contract with Boca Juniors, and again when the team's coach, Silvio Marzaloni suffered a heart attack after his team beat local rivals River Plate 3:0. All three of those goals were scored by Maradona. Cahe visited Maradona in Spain, when he played for Barcelona, and later in Naples. And it was he who accompanied Maradona to Cuba at Fidel Castro's invitation to help the now severely overweight soccer star kick an addiction to cocaine.
Cahe sits in his office in the five-story hospital he runs with his daughter. He's wearing blue doctor's scrubs. "What has happened is a gift for us," he says. He mostly says "we" when talking about Maradona. "We're on the right path. We have to seize the opportunity God has given us. This is a historic opportunity."
What historic opportunity? Cahe is referring to the coaching job with the Argentine national squad. He says it is an opportunity for Maradona. "It gives us stability, a task. That's wonderful. It's exactly what we need."
Is Maradona in good health? Cahe nods. "We're pleased with the development. You mustn't forget: Maradona nearly died. I had to reanimate him twice. I once drove around Buenos Aires with a seriously ill Maradona for 14 hours, but no hospital in the city would admit him. None of the hospitals in Buenos Aires wanted to be known as the one Maradona died in. I had to beg one of my colleagues to take us."
And is Maradona healthy now? "I just saw him, and I'm satisfied that everything is going well," he replies.
As Maradona's friend, Cahe wants to say that everything is fine. But as a doctor he knows that people who are fine don't need weekly checkups. According to a medical report leaked to the press and published in Buenos Aires, Maradona's cocaine addiction has already caused irreversible damage to his brain.
A nurse calls Cahe outside. When he returns, he is grasping a note in his hand. "This is what I gave Maradona," he says. One word stands out: "Homotoxicology."
On a recent trip to Germany, Cahe inquired about the possibilities for weaning patients off drugs homeopathically. He spent a month at a company in Baden-Baden. Because of the possible side-effects, he wants to do without classic antibiotics and anti-inflammatories in treating Maradona. The note is quite complicated, but basically it describes a less brutal way to detoxify the body's cells. At the bottom, Cahe has written a little saying for Maradona: "What we have is a tree with many sick branches and leaves. We will try to heal its trunk and roots again."
It could well be that far from Argentina needing Maradona it's actually the other way around: That Maradona needs Argentina. That he is not saving the country, rather, the country is saving him.
- Part 1: God's Gift to Argentina?
- Part 2: Embodying Victory and Failure