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After his dramatic fall from grace — and health — the Argentine legend faces a crucial test this week in his bid to lead his team to World Cup contention.
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.