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Monday, 4 November, 2002, 09:49 GMT
The 'Hand of God' church
Argentina's Diego Maradona beats England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to the ball with his hand
Maradona's 'goal' in 1986 lends its name to his church
BBC Sport Online's Tim Vickery

We are now in the year AD 43 - After Diego - according to a group of eccentrics in the Argentine city of Rosario.

They have set up the first Maradonian Church, a religion dedicated to the worship of Argentina's - and they would argue the world's - greatest ever footballer.

Last week they celebrated their Christmas. A congregation of 400 gathered at the Hand of God chapel to pay due respect on the occasion of Diego Maradona's 42nd birthday.

The Diegorian Brothers are rich in religious lore. Maradona's autobiography is their bible. Those who helped him in his career have been named apostles. Those who hindered have been branded heretics.

Their Christmas tree is decorated with images from his playing days. There is even a list of 10 commandments, including the demand to give their sons the name 'Diego.'

Of course there is humour in this. But it is also true that the feeling of adoration goes very deep - possibly too deep for the health of those involved.

In a crude summary of a century, football took on massive importance in South America for three reasons.

Diego Maradona won the World Cup for Argentina in 1986
Maradona lifts the World Cup in 1986

First, it was introduced by the British, who were very influential in the region, supplying the activity with first world prestige.

Second, it was re-interpreted by the South Americans. The straight line running style of the English was replaced by a much more intricate game of feints, twists and turns - ideal for the player with a low centre of gravity, the physical build of many South Americans.

Third, this re-interpretation lead to international triumphs for countries with few other claims on global attention.

No one embodies this process like Diego Maradona. In the 90 minutes of the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England he lived out the dream and gave vent to the frustrations of an entire nation.

His first, the 'Hand of God' goal, taps into an old South American belief - that the British have the power but the South Americans have the street cunning to run rings round them.

And scoring the second goal he literally ran rings round the England defence. It is a strong candidate for the greatest goal ever scored.

A squat boy from the Buenos Aires slums produced a moment of beauty to be admired and re-admired all over the world.

Great pressure

It was the day when Maradona became a God. And almost certainly a day which hastened his collapse as a human being.

As former national team captain Roberto Perfumo has pointed out, the Roman emperors had a slave walk behind them to whisper 'remember you're only a mortal' in their ear.

Argentina, in contrast, was more inclined to deify Diego.

Normal, healthy limits were removed. All that was required in return was that he give the nation another catharsis by playing at the same superhuman level in the World Cups of 1990 and 94.

Not suprisingly, the pressure of being a God proved too great. Drugs were needed, either to get him into shape to play football, or just to get him through the day.

Last week he declared himself touched by the celebrations at the Hand of God chapel in Rosario.

But in his long battle against his drug problems there must have been times when he wished that the 'Hand of God' had touched someone else.

BBC Sport Online's Tim Vickery casts an eye over South American football's topical issues

South America in focus

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