One of Argentina's most notorious soccer hooligans, a man known as the Butcher, has just stuck a loaded pistol in my pants. We're in La Boca, the Italian quarter of Buenos Aires, a few blocks from the stadium of the Boca Juniors, the most popular team in the land. The Butcher was laughing as he jammed that handgun into the waistband of my boxer shorts, pointing menacingly toward a part of my anatomy I would prefer not to lose. "If you're going to spend time with the fans here, Americano" says Quique (the Butcher) Ocampo, drawing on 40 years of experience in such matters, "you'll need this."
The Butcher may only be joking, but you never know. I had come to Buenos Aires in November to spend a week in the maelstrom to witness the magical realism, if you will, of Argentine soccer. There's so much that is wonderful and terrifying and farcical about soccer in Argentina. No nation has won as many World Cups in the last quarter-century (two), and oddsmakers predict a third is on the way next June. No player has inspired more adulation (or hatred) than Diego Maradona, a living myth on the order of Evita. No fans are more passionate than the singing, chanting (and, yes, gun-toting) followers of Boca Juniors, River Plate and Newell's Old Boys, teams that are British in name but undeniably Latin in flavor.
Should I have been surprised when the Butcher stuck a pistol in my shorts? This is a country, after all, where champion soccer players celebrate by letting fans tear off their clothes, where the Volkswagen Golf has been rechristened the Gol and where sports journalists apply for credentials by stating their name, their affiliation and—I'm not making this up—their blood type.
There he goes again. He can't help himself. Diego Maradona is insulting America. "How can we talk about violence in soccer when the Americans are bombing Afghanistan?" he snaps, arms crossed tightly over his chest, like a banana republic dictator. El Diego, as the 41-year-old Maradona likes to be called, is in a sour mood. He has just arrived from Havana, where two years of rehab as a guest of Fidel Castro have scarcely improved his drug-addled, blubber-saddled state. No matter. More than 50,000 fans have bought tickets for his upcoming farewell game, Argentina's soccer event of the year, and nearly 200 journalists have filled a ballroom for a press conference that, as if mocking sponsors named Advance and Speedy, begins two hours late.
Long before Maradona arrives, runway models sashay about, flogging samples of the new Diego Maradona cologne, which a panting publicist promises me "smells much better than Michael Jordan's cologne." All the while loudspeakers blare the official Maradona tribute CD, over and over, an endless loop:
It's true, Diego is the greatest there is,
He's our religion, our identity.
With his heart he gave us triumph
For being the very best,
Diego Armando Maradooooo....
Argentina's ruling deity, wearing three gold chains and glasses with purple lenses, finally strides in, entourage in tow, to a standing ovation. A teenage girl in ripped jeans asks him to dance. Disco music suddenly blasts overhead. Maradona rises and shimmies. "Is that enough?" he says a few seconds later. More than enough. Later another questioner, a woman sporting a bare midriff, tight jeans and a studded belt, storms the dais and salaciously presents Maradona with a cigar. The gallery whistles. In due time Maradona is asked about the state of the Marxist revolution ("It's good"), whether he plans on returning full time to Argentina ("Let's not talk about that") and his weight problems. "Let me enjoy this," he sneers, and he's off, shuttled through a side door by his henchmen.
He's not done slamming Uncle Sam, however. Before the week is out, an Argentine magazine will publish a photo of Maradona at his birthday party, giddily pulling on an Osama bin Laden mask. The morning after the press conference, the front page of one daily paper shows former president Carlos Menem embracing Maradona, who has donned a black turban in support of the Taliban. "This picture represents Maradona 100 percent," says Ezequiel Fern�ndez Moores, a longtime Argentine journalist. " Maradona survives by surprising people with acts that provoke. Now he visits his friend Menem, who is extremely pro-American, and yet Maradona is wearing a turban, as if he's part of the Taliban! Here is Maradona's unpredictability, his contradictions, his provocation—all in a single photo."
"Did you hear?" the Butcher asks me. " Michael Jordan is coming to Maradona's tribute game!"
I have indeed heard the news. According to Maradona's people, in addition to dozens of international soccer stars, Jordan, Tiger Woods and Formula One champion Michael Schumacher will be attending. There's no chance Jordan (or, let's be honest, Woods or Schumacher) will be winging in to Buenos Aires for Maradona's farewell match, but Quique (pronounced KEY-kay) Ocampo is so excited that I don't have the heart to tell him.