A tarnished genius

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BUENOS AIRES, May 12 – It is a measure of Diego Maradona's genius that the scandals that dogged his career will not stop him from being remembered as one of the two greatest footballers to grace the sport.Like Pele, Maradona etched his name among the legends of the game on the most demanding stage of all, the World Cup.

The 1986 finals in Mexico, where he almost single-handedly guided Argentina to glory, represented the high point of a career steeped in both brilliance and controversy.

Maradona’s five goals in Mexico included two against England in a quarter-final grudge match that in many ways has come to define him, showing why he could be both reviled and revered in the space of 90 minutes.

The first of those goals was the fisted ‘Hand of God’ effort past a stranded Peter Shilton; the second a wondrous individual strike that saw Maradona run half the length of the field and skip past several English defenders to score.

Maradona freely admits that his ‘Hand of God’ goal was deliberate — but denied that it could be termed cheating.

"I don’t think it’s cheating, it’s cunning," he said in an interview in 2006. "Is it cheating, handling the ball? I don’t think it’s cheating, I believe it’s a craftiness. Maybe we have a lot more of it in South America than in Europe but it’s not cheating."

With England out of the way, Maradona netted another magical goal in the semi-finals against Belgium, once again his stocky build and low centre of gravity giving him a fantastic ability to change direction abruptly and leave his markers trailing.

Even in the final, when he was well shackled by the German midfield, he was able to find room for a sublime killer pass in the last minute for the goal that gave Argentina a 3-2 victory.

But if Mexico was the highpoint of Maradona’s career, the same cannot be said for his three other appearances at the World Cup, all of which ended in ignominy for the ‘boy from the Barrios’.

Born on October 30, 1960 just outside Buenos Aires, Maradona began his career playing for Los Cebollitos, ‘The Little Onions’, before he moved on to Argentinos Juniors.

His talent soon came to the attention of Argentina’s selectors, and he became his country’s youngest ever international when he was picked for a friendly against Hungary at 16.

Having captained Argentina to victory in the 1978 youth World Cup finals, Maradona was a controversial omission from Cesar Luis Menotti’s senior team who went on to lift the senior crown later that year.

Voted South American Player of the Year in 1979 and 1980, Maradona was signed from Boca Juniors by Spain’s Barcelona in 1982 for a then world record transfer fee.

Barcelona’s fans were to get a disappointing sneak preview of Maradona at that summer’s World Cup finals in Spain, however. Argentina exited in the second round, with Maradona sent off in their final game for petulantly sinking his boot into the crotch of a Brazilian opponent.

An unhappy spell at Barcelona ended in 1985 when Maradona was transferred to Napoli. He guided the unfashionable Serie A outfit to the Scudetto in 1987 and 1990.

Following his heroics in Mexico, Maradona again played a captain’s role as Argentina reached the final at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

This time however Maradona left in shame, tearfully refusing to shake hands with FIFA’s president after Argentina lost a foul-tempered final 1-0 to Germany.

It was the beginning of the end. In 1991, the Italian Football Federation suspended him for 15 months for testing positive for cocaine and Maradona retreated into obscurity.

He re-emerged in Argentina colours having slimmed down and looking fit in time for the 1994 World Cup finals in the USA.

But his fitness appeared to have been artificially engineered — he was kicked out of the finals after failing a dope test for ephedrine, quitting international football thereafter.

He played a total of 138 matches for Argentina, and his record of 21 appearances in World Cup games has only been bettered by Germany’s Lothar Matthaus.

After retiring in 1997 following an unsuccessful two-year spell at Boca Juniors he was dogged by a series of health scares.

In April 2004 he suffered a heart attack following a cocaine overdose and spent weeks in intensive care. He survived that episode but his weight subsequently ballooned to alarming levels, prompting him to undergo gastric bypass surgery in 2005.

He returned to prominence as the host of a popular chat show in Argentina and then made a sensational return to football in November 2008 when he was named coach of the national side despite his lack of coaching experience.

Maradona oversaw Argentina’s worst defeat in 16 years, a 6-1 thumping by Bolivia at altitude, before guiding the two-time champions into the 2010 World Cup with victories in their final two qualifying matches.

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