Maradona is the star in South Africa

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:12 PM ET

PRETORIA -- All that is lacking is the red carpet.

With 50 TV cameras and 150 reporters awaiting his arrival, Diego Maradona enters the interview room as if he was royalty, rock star sunglasses over his dark brown eyes and a broad smile on his bearded face.

His entrance ignites the type of buzz normally associated with a Hollywood idol.

There are so many camera flashes going off, you would think these people are paparazzi, not sports journalists.

Such is the intoxicating effect of Diego Maradona, who easily has become the face -- and, in many cases the voice -- of South Africa 2010.

In a sport thirsting for colourful personalities, there are too many beige figures at this World Cup. Coaches who, when asked about what happened, grunt out convoluted explanations about formations, whine about referees, the ball, the escalating price of vuvuzelas, global warming, you name it.

Then there is Maradona.

Candid. Blunt. Cutting. One moment you think he’s out of this world; the next, you think he’s out of his mind.

On this Monday morning, Maradona has barely sat down when the press are on him. They need to know: What’s the deal with the dark shades?

“A present from my daughters for Father’s day,” he laughs.

The Argentine reporters laugh with him.

A few months ago, many of these same media members weren’t laughing with him. They were being ripped by him.

When Argentina was struggling to qualify for the World Cup, Maradona, the one-time folk hero of the entire country of Argentina, was being toasted and roasted by the press. So when the team finally did earn a trip to South Africa following a win over Peru, the little fireplug fired back with a tirade for the ages.

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

Half a year later, on a sun-splashed day here in Pretoria, he is sharing a few yuks with the very folks he had once unloaded on not so long ago.

That’s the power of Diego Maradona.

He is a contradiction. He can go from soccer god to El Diablo within minutes. No matter. Like him or hate him, when he opens his mouth, you want to hear what he has to say.

This day is no different.

The first topic comes up. It is about the rash of hard tackles taking place in the tournament. Are the referees doing enough, he is asked?

“This is football, not kung fu fighting,” Maradona states.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out his take on the subject. Too many cheap shots augmented by bad officiating.

Only Diego Maradona says it much better. Always does. Probably always will.

What about rival Brazil, he is asked?

“Brazil is not playing too well,” he says. “But Brazil can take a match when they want to take it, even if they use their arms.”

Maradona is referring to a goal by Brazilian Luis Fabiano in a 3-1 win over Ivory Coast on Sunday, one in which the ball went off Fabiano’s arm -- twice -- before entering the net. Fabiano said afterward it was comparable to Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal against England in 1986.

Maradona will have none of it.

“No no he had it on the arm,” he insists, adding “the comical tragical thing was the smile on the referee’s face.”

That should go over well with Brazilian fans in Rio. Not to mention inside the FIFA referee’s room.

Diego Maradona doesn’t care what they think. Nor does he give a rat’s vuvuzela how they might feel about him in Rome when he responds to a question about Italy’s struggles here in South Africa.

“Italy ... My God! It must be a huge scandal in Italy when they see that,” he says, grinning.

Before the press conference is over, he gets in a shot about the Spanish too.

“I saw on Spanish TV that Spain has an uphill battle. Before, it was like Spain was coming here to pick up the World Cup and the rest of us were here playing for second place.”

If ever an answer was dripping with sarcasm, that was it.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Not after he tore into soccer legends Pele and Michel Platini last week.

Prior to the World Cup, Pele suggested Maradona’s motivation for taking the Argentine managerial position was for the money. Maradona responded by saying Pele should “go back to the museum.”

As for Platini, when he questioned Maradona’s coaching abilities, the Argentine said the Frenchman considered himself above everyone else.

There are those here in South Africa who think Maradona has lost his marbles. If so, he must be as crazy as a fox, given the impressive way his team has rocketed out of the gates.

Argentina has won its first two games, outscoring its opposition 5-1. Lionel Messi, the best player in the world, loves him. In the world of Diego Maradona, that’s all that matters.

Check that. For Maradona, winning is all that matters. No matter how.

This is a man who, in a four-minute span during a 1986 World Cup game against England, produced two of the most memorable goals in tournament history.

On the first one, he slapped it in the net while faking as if it went off his head. More than 100,000 fans at the Azteca Stadium and millions of television viewers across the world saw it. Somehow the referee didn’t. The goal counted.

It would forever be known as “The Hand of God.”

Minutes later, Maradona made the highlight reels again, this time with a legitimate goal. He went end to end, slicing and dicing through the English players before finishing it off with flair.

That’s Diego Maradona for you. The good and the bad. The man who brilliantly led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title. The same man who would be kicked out of the tournament eight years later after testing positive for the drug ephedrine.

In his quest for soccer immortality, Maradona, whose Argentines meet Greece in Polokwane Tuesday, has vowed he will run nude through the streets of Buenos Aires if Argentina wins the World Cup.

We feel safe that we are speaking for the general populace when we suggest no one wants to see that.

Then again, what anyone else thinks really won’t alter Maradona’s actions.

Never has. Never will.


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