Don't cry for Diego Maradona

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:59 PM ET

TORONTO - After having his name dragged through the mud for months, Diego Maradona decided to slide through some muck himself.

With Argentina’s hopes of making the World Cup dangling by a thread, Maradona, the soccer legend turned national team manager, could not contain his glee when his team eked out a 2-1 victory over Peru in a qualifying match last fall.

Moments after substitute Martin Palermo’s extra-time game-winner saved Argentina from disaster, a euphoric Maradona celebrated by taking a head-first dive on to the muck-laden pitch, skidding across the soggy surface with a huge smile on his face.

“That was funny,” recalled Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.

It was, in fact, one of the very few humorous moments Maradona has enjoyed during his team’s tumultuous road to South Africa 2010.

Maradona was, at one time, the most beloved figure in his native country, leading Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title with the type of spectacular play that had some observers calling him the second greatest performer of all time next to Brazilian icon Pele.

But the bloom appeared to be off the rose when Maradona took over as Argentina’s manager, with some fans claiming the now portly fireplug had digressed from hero to zero.

Having taken over the team midway through qualifying, Maradona and Argentina barely squeezed into the World Cup, finishing fourth in its group. Without Palmero’s late magic against Peru, the Argentines may as well have cancelled their plane tickets for South Africa.

Part of the problem, critics argued, was Maradona’s use of about 84 players during qualifying, stripping the team of any continuity.

Why not stick with a smaller group of players who could familiarize themselves with each other on the pitch as the months ticked down to World Cup?

As well, there were perceived tactical errors, ones that were especially on display in a 6-1 qualifying loss to Bolivia. Some called it one of the most humiliating moments in Argentine sports history.

Through all the verbal bashing, Maradona didn’t forget those who took shots at him.

Following its victory over Peru, Argentina once again required some late-game dramatics in its final qualifier against Uruguay.

This time it was substitute Mario Bolatti proving to be the difference, finding the back of the net just six minutes from the final whistle for a 1-0 win that allowed Argentina to sneak into the World Cup.

Having seen Bolatti ensure his team’s berth in South Africa, Maradona then fired back at the naysayers with one of the great rants in the history of the sport.

When translated into English, his outburst went something like this:

“For those who didn’t believe and criticized you can suck it, and keep on sucking it ... you treated me like rubbish!”

You get the point.

Controversy is hardly new to Maradona.

In 1991, for example, he was banned for 15 months after testing positive for cocaine. Three years later he was sent home from the World Cup after testing positive for the stimulant ephedrine.

And there are those in England who are still bitter to this day for his “Hand of God” goal that helped Argentina eliminate the English from the 1986 World Cup.

Having said all that, don’t underestimate Argentina, which features the world’s best player in Messi; a trio of legitimate studs in defender Walter Samuel; midfielder Juan Veron and striker Carlos Tevez; and an up-and-coming superstar in Sergio Aguero. With talent like this, they are the pick of many to go all the way, no matter how much they staggered during qualifying.

In the end, however, South Africa 2010 will be all about Maradona.

If Argentina wins, the legend of Diego Maradona will add another glorious chapter. If it falls ridiculously short, well, let the mud-slinging begin.

Or resume, as the case may be.


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