The Miami Herald
Sat, Apr. 24, 2004
Argentina ties its pride, pain to gravely ill Diego Maradona

As soccer legend Diego Maradona lies in a hospital, Argentines are split on his legacy: Is he a symbol of Argentina's greatness or national failure?


BUENOS AIRES - As in a soccer game, there are two halves to the myth of Diego Maradona.

The first half, filled with wonder and pride, is a devotion to the magical talent of Argentina's soccer god.

The second half, dark and foreboding, speaks to the drug addiction that prematurely ended his career and today threatens his life.

In a country whose past was filled with promise and whose present is marked by despair, these two perspectives -- one nostalgic, the other pessimistic -- compete to define the Maradona legacy. In a way, it's also a debate about Argentina's soul.

Gustavo Auñon wore dark glasses to observe the scene Friday at the private Swiss-Argentine clinic in downtown Buenos Aires where Maradona has been hospitalized since Sunday for heart and lung failure.


The 55-year-old dentist remembers Maradona for his fall from grace. He recalls Maradona being suspended from soccer for drug use in 1991 and again during the World Cup in 1994. He evokes a tragic hero from a Buenos Aires slum who never escaped the adversities of his youth.

''We Argentines have our false idols and we adore them,'' Auñon said. ``Everything seems good at first, and then it rots.''

Then there are devotees like Alejandra Althabe. The 38-year-old school secretary knelt Friday before a photo of Maradona looking skyward. She grasped a white rosary hanging from the poster. And she prayed.

Althabe remembers his magic. She recalls her mother telling her Maradona stories, just as she now tells those stories to her three children. She evokes a national hero who scored 34 goals in 91 matches for the national team and led Argentina to a World Cup in 1986.

''I adore Diego,'' she said. ``I am proud to tell my children about Diego. He is the best thing we have in Argentina.''

Maradona is on a short list of deified Argentines: first lady Evita Peron, tango singer Carlos Gardel, revolutionary Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara. Ominously, all three died young.

''There is a divide today in Argentine society,'' said Luciano Elizalde, a sociologist at Austral University in Buenos Aires. ``Some have watched Maradona's decline, and feel sorrow. Others maintain a religious dedication to him.''


''It is part of our national character to construct myths,'' he added. ``These figures showed an ability that went beyond talent or hard work. They were magical.''

In the early 20th century, Argentina -- with fertile land, abundant natural resources and an educated populace -- was on its way to becoming a world power. But somewhere the country stumbled. In 2001, it suffered the worst economic crisis in its history, comparable to the Great Depression in the United States. Half the population is poor in what was once a strongly middle-class nation.

''Argentina was this place of so much possibility. And so much of that potential just fell apart through excess,'' said Grant Wahl, the soccer writer for Sports Illustrated. ``That's Maradona right there.''

The Maradona myth may well have begun on a soccer field in Mexico in 1986. Four years earlier, Argentina and England had gone to war over the Falkland Islands. The two teams then met in the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup.

Early in the second half, Maradona leaped to an oncoming ball and used his fist to score a goal. The referee didn't notice the violation. After the game, Maradona credited the goal to ``the hand of God.''

Minutes later, Maradona weaved his way 60 yards through six English defenders and scored a second goal. It is called the greatest goal in World Cup history.

Today, devotees of his soccer magic can join the ''Church of Maradona.'' It has 20,000 members.


The number 10 is central to the Diego idolatry. Maradona wore the number 10 for the national team, and the number 10, acolytes will point out, resembles the ''IO'' in the Spanish word for god, DIOS.

Several signs plastering the wall of the clinic where Maradona is hospitalized referred to the visual pun: ''Fuerza, D10S,'' -- ''Be strong, God'' -- read one. ''D10S is eternal,'' read another.

But beyond the divide over Maradona's legacy, there remains a near universal reservoir of sympathy for the ailing soccer great.

An itinerant museum to Maradona with more than 600 photographs, video clips and personal objects exhibited recently in Argentina. The exhibit will travel to Mexico, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Egypt.

Buenos Aires architect Jackie Herchcovitz said he dragged his 11-month-old daughter Lola to the museum for a lesson in religion, history and unconditional love.

''You have to take Diego as he came. He made mistakes but that doesn't affect what he did on the field,'' Herchcovitz said. ``Diego is beyond good and evil.''