Having illuminated and darkened the World Cup, Maradona can find redemption on greatest stage
DIEGO MARADONA and the World Cup have become the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of football. Can't live together, can't live apart.
During his five tournaments as player and coach, the Argentine has been through elation and humiliation, shown a divine left foot and a Hand of God. He's experienced a gold medal, a drugs bust and a shot at redemption.
Three months shy of his half-century, the remaking of Diego Armando Maradona has been one of the stories of this World Cup. His team have played some magical football, the ball speeding between Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain.
His press conferences have become all-ticket affairs -- such as at Green Point Stadium last night -- and his training sessions are spiced with such remarkable sights as the former European Footballer of the Year practising rugby kicks. Successfully.
It is impossible not to watch Maradona overseeing training -- that deft left foot teasing the ball around -- and not find the mind rewinding to past World Cups, to the televised pictures of his fraud and flair against England in 1986.
For those of us privileged to be in Turin on June 24, 1990, the memory will never fade of Maradona dribbling through a Brazilian midfield including Dunga before using his right foot to sweep the ball through the defence for Claudio Caniggia to score the winner.
Book-ending those epic moments were Maradona's involvements in the 1982 World Cup, seeing his wayward side with a red card against Brazil, and the 1994 tournament when ephedrine was discovered in his system. Maradona has illuminated and darkened the greatest show on earth.
Now he faces Joachim Loew's youthful side. The Germany manager remembers Maradona at his peak in 1986 and 1990 partly because his country faced Argentina in both finals. "We had the incredible, extraordinary Diego Maradona in these tournaments," reflected Loew yesterday.
"He galvanised the whole football world with his skills. He was simply magic. In 1986, that was the climax of his career. He virtually decided that World Cup with his own hands. He left a mark on football like no other player has ever done."
Maradona now wants to leave a mark as a manager.
"I came across a group of kids yesterday," recalled Maradona, "and they said, 'Diego, we want you to be in the final, can you give us that?' So I told them, 'Calm down boys. In the end we will see what happens and if God wants us to be at the final, you will see us there'. But I know that is what God wants.
"I have spoken to my father, Don Diego. He is not in the best of health, but he said that if we reach the final, he will come out here to see us win. He just said to me, 'Do what you did in 1986, son'. This time we will not need the Hand of God because it is the will of God."
The criticism that has flowed Argentina's way from Loew's players, notably Bastian Schweinsteiger, drew a contemptuous response.
"Schweinsteiger said we were a misfit team, but we play football," continued Maradona. "He will realise that when he sees what we do on the pitch against him. Of course, we will not forget what Schweinsteiger has said. He has not treated us well at all.''
Nor Pele in Maradona's estimation. The great Brazilian questioned the Argentine's character, earning a withering response from Maradona. "He is someone who belongs in a museum,'' Maradona said of Pele. "He doesn't do anything in football any more, unlike me, and then attacks me and wants to fight me. I have already won in the eyes of the people."
He has always been the champion of the Argentine people, because he raised himself from the Buenos Aires slums, because he took on the world, and because he made the ball dance. Now as coach, he plays the great conductor from the dugout.
Maradona insisted it would be a "sin" to change tactics, indicating that the attacking approach that swept away the likes of Mexico would remain.
Loew certainly did not believe Argentina would be more cautious. "I don't think that would be his mentality, to be honest," Loew said of Maradona.
"Remember him as a player, he was not necessarily a player who helped the defence. He was always an attacking player, and he'll want to leave a mark on the attacking play.
"They've won all their games, have experienced players, and Argentina have strong attacking players that are almost incomparable in numbers. Look at the team and the subs' bench -- they've got incredibly talented players who don't make it into the side. Diego Milito, after his fantastic season in Europe, doesn't make it into the side.
"Their firepower is remarkable, and it's not just Messi that we can worry about. Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Martin Palermo and Sergio Aguero. We have to avoid all mistakes.
"They capitalise very quickly, so we've been warned. We know their attacking power."
As much as Maradona's tactics may seem gung-ho, simply unleashing forwards, he is not a one-dimensional coach and his man-management strengths were noted by his defenders.
The Bayern Munich centre-half Martin DeMichelis was distraught after his mistake against South Korea, but found consoling words from the manager.
"I am proud of Maradona and he is supporting me all the time, at all moments," said DeMichelis.
Claiming that Maradona has matured is always a dangerous pastime. A man whose post-playing days have at times appeared an assault course of drug abuse, tax problems and obesity appears to have found some peace, sanity and a consistent suit size. For now. A tirade is only a racing heartbeat away.
"As a player I saw him on TV as a fan," reflected DeMichelis, "and as a coach he has grown a lot. I am very convinced by the words Diego has given us, he is very positive. How can you question Diego? He has managed four games at the World Cup and has won all four."
A fifth would really be another remarkable moment in Maradona's mercurial relationship with the World Cup. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)