Can Maradona come back? Again?

Sometimes there can be a very thin line between comedy and tragedy. About all that has stopped Diego Maradona from crossing over is the fact that he has somehow survived.

Many soccer cognoscenti regard the former Argentine star as the greatest ever to take the field. Suffice it to say that Maradona was a singular talent and, without question, ranks among the top handful of players in the history of the game.

Few rose as high — his performance when Argentina won the '86 World Cup is legend — so few had quite as far to fall. The relentless downhill plunge of first his career and then his life filled the sports and gossip pages for more than a decade.

In the early '90s, he was banned from Italian soccer — he had carried Napoli to its only Serie A title — after testing positive for cocaine and was rumored to have developed unsavory ties to the Italian mafia. A few years later, in the last of his four World Cups for Argentina, Maradona was booted from the tournament after testing positive for drugs. His dispirited team exited soon after.

Beloved by Argentines in spite of his many missteps, Maradona became a figure of ridicule for others. He was a celebrity prop for Latin American leftist leaders like Castro, but increasingly cut a rather distressing figure. Years of cocaine addiction and alcohol abuse had bloated his body until he resembled one of those Thanksgiving Day parade balloons.

The toll steadily mounted — gastric bypass surgery, a major heart attack, advanced kidney disease — and necessitated long stints in intensive care units and psychiatric hospitals. The nation mourned his passing several times, but rumors of his death have always proved to be greatly exaggerated.

Maradona, still only 48 years old, has now lost enough weight so that he is recognizable, though he perhaps resembles a much older version of himself. He claims to have been clean — no drugs, no alcohol — for more than four years.

Still, even in a nation that prayed for his redemption, it came as a shock when — with Argentina faltering in its path to the World Cup — Maradona was chosen to take over as national team coach. Previously he had only a few brief flirtations with coaching, strictly at the club level. They were notably unsuccessful.

While the obvious hope in appointing Maradona was that memories of his transcendent play would inspire today’s players, the team is no doubt also aware of his reputation for recklessness.

In Argentina’s two World Cup qualifiers since Maradona took over as coach, lack of discipline has been far more in evidence than any channeling of past glories. The team managed an easy win at home against Venezuela. But that was quickly overshadowed by a 6-1 thrashing in Bolivia, a loss that was trumpeted by the press as the “worst defeat” ever and a “historic humiliation.” The loss left Argentina clinging to South America’s fourth and final automatic spot in the World Cup — behind not only Brazil, but also Paraguay and Chile.

Playing in La Paz, at 12,000 feet above sea level, has always been a challenge. Still, Bolivia had been playing poorly throughout qualification, standing 9th among the 10 South American teams, and had won only two of its five home games.

Critics blamed Maradona for a rookie mistake, his unusual (and in retrospect inexplicable) decision not to bring the team to La Paz early so that it might acclimatize to the altitude. Instead, the team flew in just a few hours before game time and never found its footing. That error was compounded by the coach’s insistence on a fast-paced attacking style — with superstar Lionel Messi in the Maradona role — that seemed particularly ill suited for a team on wobbly legs.

Maradona didn’t make any excuses afterwards nor did he try to diminish the impact of the defeat. “Every goal was like a knife through my heart,” he said.

But this week the nation and indeed the soccer world will be watching, not to see how much he has suffered but rather what he may have learned from that disaster. Argentina faces two critical matches against teams clinging to World Cup hopes — Saturday at home against Colombia and Wednesday in Ecuador — that will go far toward determining the fate of both the team and its coach.

If Argentina stumbles again, the nation will have two months to obsess over a possibility that was once unimaginable — its failure to reach the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa. Qualifying will not resume until September when Argentina opens the final four-game stretch by hosting mighty Brazil. Brazil would enjoy nothing more than to deliver the coup de grace to its historic rival for continental supremacy.

However, if Argentina does falter this week, Maradona is unlikely to see September with the team let alone South Africa. There are some conditions so grave that even he can’t survive.

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