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Writer Giuseppe Pacileo of Naples' Il Mattino gazes serenely out at the field. A gray-haired, potbellied man with pipe, glasses and a strong resemblance to Santa Claus, Pacileo angered Maradona recently by grading his performance in a game as a 3.5 on a scale of 10. Maradona approached the writer later and, holding up the newspaper, said, "I'll give you this to eat!"
"Then we were separated," recalls Pacileo. "It would have been bad for him, too. I have these." He raises his fists menacingly. Pacileo is one of those critics who sincerely believes Maradona has hurried his own demise through intemperate living and carelessness, and that the loss is all of ours. "He goes to rock concerts, he drinks, he has women, he is not living like an athlete," says Pacileo. Like most Italian sportswriters, Pacileo is impressed by Maradona's weight loss and rededication to training. But, he says, "Maradona cannot compensate in three months for 10 years of irregular life. He is still clever with his foot, but in modern soccer one must be in amazing shape. Never more will we see the Maradona of 1986."
The next day Maradona returns to practice, claiming he has been out treating a leg injury—with his own private doctor, of course. In the practice he seems to come alive, rejoicing in the splendor of a dance he performs so well. His teammates respond to his passes; he yells and urges them onward in a half-field scrimmage. There is no doubt that he loves the game, that the purity and simplicity of the contest thrills him.
He stays after practice, working on kicks with 24-year-old teammate Gianfranco Zola. Maradona places a ball slightly behind the end line, eight yards from the goal. Then with a magnificent left-footed blast, he arcs the ball around the post and up into the far corner of the net. It is a shot that does not seem humanly possible. Zola, who is sometimes called "the little Diego," looks reverent. He tries the kick and cracks the ball directly into the post. He tries again. Boom, same thing. "Don't worry," says Maradona as the two leave the field. "When I was young I couldn't make the shot, either."
Eleven years ago Maradona said, "I dream of a soccer field where only children are allowed to go, where even the program sellers are children." But how quickly the adults intrude.
Ormezzano asks him politely if he is now ready to speak with the American journalist, and Maradona shakes his head vigorously. No. There is no time for interviews; he doesn't want to talk, all this must be set up far in advance with his secretary. He knows, of course, that Ormezzano has gone through his secretary before, that the secretary has suggested paying a big fee, that all this is just rudeness and bluster, Maradona being just...a child. The player walks up the hill behind the field, and one of the sportswriters gathered below mentions to the others that she has been waiting to talk to Maradona for two months. "He could be an ambassador, but he is not," says Marco Cherubini of Milan's Il Giornale, summing up many people's thoughts. "Freud would be lucky to know him."
Against Cremonese on Sunday, Maradona scores two goals in an easy 3-0 victory. The defenders are no match for Napoli's attack or for Maradona's darting moves, which resemble Barry Sanders carrying the ball against a junior college secondary. Some of the fanatic Napoli boosters in the end zone, the "Southboys," with their smoke bombs and Confederate flags from the American Civil War, sing their traditional chant, "Maradona is better than Pelé./We practically killed ourselves to get him." But they seem to want something more.
They would like, no doubt, a display such as the one Maradona put on at halftime of a pro game in Buenos Aires nearly 20 years ago. Just 10 years old then, he walked onto the field and proceeded to juggle his soccer ball for the entire intermission—keeping it in the air by bouncing it off his feet, knees, chest, ankles, head and shoulders as if it were a balloon and his body a spring breeze. When the two teams returned to the field to resume play, the crowd began chanting to the wonder boy, "Stay! Stay!"
In the World Cup finals, which begin June 8, Argentina will play two of its three first-round games in Naples, and it will be interesting to see if the local fans back Maradona with the same passion they do when he plays for Napoli. If Maradona is revered for his skills, he is not loved for his persona. To soccer fans he is John McEnroe, not Magic Johnson. And this seeps under his skin. "It drives me crazy when they say, 'As a player, yes, but as a person, no,' " he told a journalist for an Argentine sports magazine last summer. "These people don't even know me as a person." Though he was speaking principally of sportswriters, he also meant his critics everywhere.
But how is anyone supposed to know Maradona as a person? He is removed by talent and choice from all but a select few, which is the way he wants it. Everything is the way he wants it. We are blessed, we must assume, simply to catch glimpses of him as he streaks by. "His is a calloused world," writes Rob Hughes in the International Herald Tribune, "and it is miraculous that he sometimes still is child enough to chase fantasy goals for us."