There's so much energy, so much pageantry. And then Maradona shows up. He looks as if he's wearing a fat suit. A 25-foot-tall, inflated blue-and-white number 10 shirt greets him at midfield. "That must be Diego's jersey," says one Argentine wag. Maradona is playing with the national team against a side of international legends featuring Germany's Lothar Matth�us, Bulgaria's Hristo Stoitchkov and Colombia's Carlos Valderrama. With his beach-ball belly, puffy cheeks and penguin's waddle, he looks like a weekend warrior who won a contest to play with the world's best for 90 minutes. You get the sense that even at 61, Pel� could come down from his box and dribble rings around the dissolute El Diego.
But that's not what we've come for. We've come to see Maradona bury a penalty kick in the far corner, just like the old days; to watch young men fight like piranhas for the jersey he throws into the stands, ripping it to shreds; and to behold the scene that unfolds at the end of the match, when the barra brava fire off a 10-minute-long volley of bottle rockets. Maradona walks slowly toward them. He's crying now. His fans, his people, are crying too. They're shaking the dingy rafters, climbing the 20-foot-high retaining fence, dancing atop its three strands of barbed wire, feeling no pain. For one moment, however brief, Maradona is morphine.
There's so much that is wonderful, terrifying and farcical about Argentine soccer. Within hours I'll leave South America, but that haunting wail may never stop thundering through my head.
MARADOOOOO.... MARADOOOOO.... MARADOOOOO....