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PRIMA DONA
Rick Telander
May 14, 1990
AT HIS BEST, DIEGO MARADONA CAN BE AS GRACEFUL AS MICHAEL JORDAN. AT HIS WORST, HE CAN BE AS DISGRACEFUL AS JOHN McENRORE. THE QUESTION IS, WHICH MARADONA WILL SHOW FOR THE WORLD CUP?
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May 14, 1990

Prima Dona

AT HIS BEST, DIEGO MARADONA CAN BE AS GRACEFUL AS MICHAEL JORDAN. AT HIS WORST, HE CAN BE AS DISGRACEFUL AS JOHN McENRORE. THE QUESTION IS, WHICH MARADONA WILL SHOW FOR THE WORLD CUP?

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In the interview room a reporter says to Maradona, "Sacchi said that you are worth the price of a ticket, even if you are not at your best." Maradona smiles again and says, "I thank him very much. He knows and loves football."

La Stampa columnist Gian Paolo Ormezzano, a cheerful man who is more bemused than angered by Maradona's immaturity, calls out, "But Diego, remember that today the tickets weren't very expensive!"

No one is certain how Maradona will respond, but he laughs heartily, and everyone in the room joins in. Maradona clearly is in a good mood, and as he leaves he is asked by Ormezzano if he will allow himself to be interviewed by an American journalist, with Ormezzano acting as interpreter. Maradona nods and says, "Si, si...in Naples." And then he is gone.

One wonders if any athlete could buck up to the scrutiny that a soccer god must undergo. Maradona has been skewered in the papers since 1986, when a Neapolitan woman named him as the father of her illegitimate son and sued for child support. The suit is still pending. A couple of years ago an Italian scandal rag gave cover billing to what it claimed was a nude photo of Maradona's wife, Claudia, his sweetheart for the past 16 years. The picture inside showed a fully clad Claudia with a single breast exposed as she nursed Dalma.

But then there was always Edson Arantes do Nascimento of Brazil, the great Pelé, the soccer god who never seemed to have an off day at the office, no matter how rough the work got. Pelé was the Ernie Banks of soccer, always smiling, kissing children, helping opponents from the turf, convincing the masses that no matter how much he was getting paid, he was playing this game for the sheer joy of it. Maradona is still the suspicious, uncertain kid from the slums, whose dad was a night watchman. Like Roger Maris, of whom Tommy Devine of the Miami News once wrote, "If it weren't for sportswriters, Roger Maris would probably be an $18-a-week clerk in the A & P back in Missouri," Maradona is sometimes despised just because such awesome physical gifts have appeared in such a stubborn and unrepentant human being.

But on the ragged playing fields in the slums 13 miles south of Buenos Aires none of that matters. On a recent day in Maradona's old Villa Fiorito neighborhood, little boys, shirtless and barefooted, play soccer on one of the two dusty fields that haven't yet been taken over by rickety tin shacks and a garbage dump. The tiniest of the group, six-year-old Gaston Gomez, complains bitterly that he has been forced to play goalkeeper, to guard an area the boys have defined with two broken bricks. "I bet Maradona never had to play goalie," he says sadly. "I want to be Maradona."

"They all want to be the next Maradona," says Armando Bermudez, 73, watching the game from the square hole that serves as the only window in his makeshift abode. 'Ask them what they want to be, and they don't even say 'a soccer player,' they just say 'Maradona.' "

There is little chance of that happening; Maradona is a phenomenon, something that occurs only rarely, which is why people are so fascinated by his actions both on and off the field. His wedding last November in Buenos Aires was a suitably gauche and entertaining moment for all concerned, with 1,200 guests, an 80-piece tango orchestra and the bridal couple riding in a Rolls-Royce Phantom III said to have been owned by Joseph Goebbels. There was the sense that Maradona was thumbing his nose at the Argentine upper crust at the same time that he was proving he now belonged to it.

"You have to remember, he came from a very poor family, and suddenly, when he was 16, still basically a child, he was thrown into the public eye and faced with a lot of pressure," says his friend Valdano. "It's very difficult to be Maradona. I would not want to be Maradona."

Two days after the Milan match, Maradona is missing from practice. Where is he? No one knows. Moggi, the weary general manager, reponds to the reporters' questions with shrugs of futility. "I walk on eggs around here," he says.

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