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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April, 2004, 12:47 GMT 13:47 UK
Maradona's fall from grace
By John May

Diego Maradona looks anguished
The classic image of Diego Maradona both sums up his life and marks the beginning of his downfall.

When the Argentine jumped with Peter Shilton at 8,000 feet above sea level, in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium, to touch in the infamous Hand of God goal, Maradona was at his closest to the sun.

But like another whose prideful and conceited flight path displeased the gods, so Maradona proved to be a footballing Icarus.

His downfall has been spectacular, painful and ugly, the sumptuous talents that arguably made him the world's greatest footballer came with a price tag on which he has failed to make the payments.

Thus, Diego Maradona became both genius and dupe, icon and pawn.

It is easy to excuse Maradona's as the classic tale of the impoverished waif unable to cope with the fame and fortune that fell on him like a skipload of bricks.

However, other Latin American geniuses such as Pele and Ronaldo came from dirt-poor backgrounds, but have not flown off the rails.

So where did it all go wrong for Maradona?

Most of his problems stem from a cocaine addiction that can be traced back to his record-breaking transfer to Barcelona in 1982.

MARADONA - KEY DATES
30/10/60: Born in Buenos Aires slum
20/10/76: Pro debut for Argentinos Juniors aged 15
27/2/77: Debut for Argentina v Hungary
June 1982: Joins Barcelona
June 1984: Joins Napoli
17/3/91: 15-month ban after positive drugs test
June 94: Ejected from World Cup after testing positive
August 1997: Tests positive for third time
25/10/97: Retires from playing on 37th birthday

His time in Catalunya sowed the seeds of his problems - and a grotesquely broken ankle caused by a tackle from the "Butcher of Bilbao" Andoni Goicoechea did not help.

But it was his move to Naples in 1984 that planted the seed from which he has reaped a terrible harvest.

Maradona played the best football of his career between joining Napoli and leading Argentina to World Cup triumph in 1986.

He was feted as a god by the tifosi as he inspired Napoli to two titles and Uefa Cup success, and the adoration blinded him as he became embroiled in vice and corruption scandals.

He became inextricably linked to Naples' own crime syndicates and it is said that in the seething southern Italian city, the Camorra and cocaine did for Maradona.

After leading Argentina to the World Cup in 1986, the time-bomb ticked away under him.

After a controversial Italia 90, a positive dope test in 1991 not only triggered a 15-month ban but hinted why at times during the World Cup, Maradona played not so much like a man possessed but like a man deranged.

He returned and arrested his slide by getting his act together to play in the 1994 World Cup in the USA.

But he gave himself another downward shove with a maniacal full-face goal celebration into a camera.

Suspicions of flakiness were turned into confirmations of near lunacy by another positive test that saw him thrown out of the tournament, officially for use of ephedrine, probably just one ingredient in a witches' brew of drugs coursing through him.

Diego Maradona celebrates a goal against Greece in 1994 World Cup
Maradona's manic celebration hinted at his mental state

Ill-advised playing comebacks punctuating disastrous coaching spells provided proof his footballing career was on the skids, but his private life was even more ramshackle.

Lost paternity suits, firing off guns at journalists and other brushes with the law hinted at a man in meltdown and his supposed retreat to Cuba to kill his drug addiction only fuelled the process as he smoked cigars and chomped giant steaks with Fidel Castro.

The bloated, grotesque Maradona is a sad parody of the snake-hipped, mercury-heeled teenager who astonished the Wembley crowd when Argentina played England in a 1980 friendly.

While it is hard to sympathise with somebody whose problems have been largely self-inflicted, Diego Maradona has rarely had help when he needed it.

Such was his stature, that the unscrupulous were all too ready to use him for their ends, and he became a political pawn.

Inevitably, he attracted sycophants and those that depended on him for their livelihoods feted him and fawned over him when he needed brave and unpalatable counsel.

The Golden Child who dared to fly close to the sun really needed air-traffic control to talk him down, and a man who always lived on the edge now faces a battle to avoid an untimely death.





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