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Old May 27, 2006, 01:41 PM
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From Daily Star

Diego Maradona: The Greatest, part deux
Diego Maradona carried Argentina on his shoulders to victory in the 1986 World Cup, the crowning glory in the career of a man who, with the possible exception of Brazil's Pele, is considered the game's greatest ever talent.


Some things never lose currency in Argentina. Football is one of them. Another source of comfort for the masses, and one player in particular has provided more than his share of tender loving care is Diego Armando Maradona. And in a land that identifies itself by its football Maradona is nothing short of divine.

Maradona made the ball an early friend and it was his constant companion in the games of street football that taught him how to compete with older and bigger opponents. Despite this toughening process, however, Maradona's physique, or lack of it, almost cost him his career.

The Argentinos Juniors youth coach, Francis Cornejo, had no doubts about his ability -- yet could not believe that the little left-footer was old enough to play for his team. His date of birth duly established, Maradona became the star of the 'Cebollitas' helping them go 136 matches unbeaten. The senior squad beckoned, and on 20 October 1976 the 15-year-old debuted for Argentinos Juniors in the first division against Talleres de Cordoba.

Another 21 seasons, another bow: the final curtain fell on Diego's career after Boca Juniors' 2-1 defeat of River Plate on 29 October 1997. In the intervening years, Barcelona, Napoli, Seville and Newell's Old Boys had all witnessed the Maradona phenomenon at first hand -- a pocket battleship of a player blessed with supreme technique and a magical left foot.

It was the national team that saw the best of him, however.
Thirty-four goals in 91 appearances make him the Albiceleste's second top scorer after Gabriel Batistuta.

This love affair began on 3 April 1977 when Maradona first played for his country in a friendly against a local selection. Soon there were calls for coach Cesar Luis Menotti to include him in the squad for the forthcoming FIFA World Cup finals. Argentina would win the tournament on home soil -- but without Diego whom Menotti thought too young to participate.

Amends were made the following summer when Maradona inspired his peers (not that he had many equals) to victory at the FIFA World Youth Championship in Japan. "That was the most fun I had on a football pitch," he said later. "Apart from my daughters, nothing has given me as much pleasure."
Balance was the key -- which was ironic given his struggle to find equilibrium elsewhere in life. It was impossible to stop 'El Grande' as he slalomed towards goal; and just as unerring was his accuracy from set pieces.

Maradona was twice named Latin American player of the year ahead of his first World Cup in 1982, where he shone as brightly as the Spanish sun before a shameful tackle saw him red-carded in a second round defeat to Brazil.

Mexico 86 was another matter entirely. Maradona's five goals -- one against Italy and two apiece against England and Belgium in the quarter and semi-finals -- took Carlos Bilardo's side to the final, and sealed his reputation. It was as the greatest player on the planet that he lifted the FIFA World Cup after a 3-2 win over West Germany.

But he will forever be remembered for the two goals that he had scored against England in the quarterfinal. The first he clearly scored with his hand, a goal that has entered football folklore after Maradona claimed the ball was touched by "the hand of God".

The second was one of the World Cup's all-time great goals, weaving past five defenders before slotting the ball into an empty net.

Maradona was again brilliant at Italia 1990, but a depleted Argentina lost to West Germany in the final after a controversial penalty.

He again captained Argentina at the 1994 World Cup in the US, where he scored a sensational free-kick against Greece. But a positive dope test for ephedrine there ended his international career of 91 matches and 34 goals, 8 of them in his 21 World Cup matches.

Barcelona won a scramble to sign him in 1982 when they paid a world record eight million dollars for the 21-year-old, but they failed to capitalize on his talent before he left for Napoli in 1984, where he was greeted as the next Messiah.

Many in the rough and tumble port city still remember him in the same light after a seven year spell where he enchanted Italy and led Napoli themselves to a league and Cup double in 1987, a UEFA Cup title in 1989, and a second 'Serie A' title in 1991.

Later that year he picked up his first cocaine ban as his slide from the top began. He joined Boca Juniors in 1995 after a brief spell at Seville in Spain, but failed another drug test on the occasion of his 150th league match in Argentina, which effectively ended his playing career.

Maradona appears to be emerging from years of drug addiction, failing health and obesity and after an operation to reduce the size of his stomach a slimline Diego launched his own chat show in Argentina in 2005.

Nevertheless, Argentina celebrated this beautiful, if chequered, career on 10 November 2001 with a testimonial match at La Bombonera stadium, home of Boca Juniors. The No.10 captained the national team to victory over an All Star XI. Same old routine, one might think, but this was a variation on an old theme -- Argentina bringing comfort to her favourite footballing son.
The brilliance of the man can be summed up by a simple quote from another great of the game. Michael Platini, no stranger to greatness himself, once said, " The things that I can do with a football he can do with an orange."
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