JOHANNESBURG: The joke must have been told thousands of times — “be careful, he doesn’t snort them” whenever Diego Maradona is near a stadium, or even a road, with painted white lines. The bad-boy of global football is known as just that: impulsive, volatile, unpredictable and always ready to tell people where to get off.
In fact, when Argentina qualified for the 2010 World Cup last November, that’s exactly what he did. His press conference telling the media to “suck it and keep on sucking it” earned him a two-month ban from all footballing activity. The prevailing feeling amongst Argentines was that the team was talented enough to win the tournament but that Maradona’s eccentrics might cost them in South Africa.
Not one to care much about what people thought, it can hardly be the opinions of his countrymen that made Maradona clean up for the tournament, but he cuts a striking image on the touchline in South Africa. The local media are waiting for him to utter expletives, lose his rag at the side of the field and go running on during a match or be caught with a lady of the night in a dodgy brothel so they have something to confirm that this new, clean-cut man has not taken the naughty out of Maradona.
The most feisty they saw was when Maradona leapt over the cordoned-off area in a press conference and cut a path for himself through a throng of reporters as he charged towards one man. Instead of administering a right hook, Maradona engulfed the man in a bear hug that has become his latest trademark. That man was Javier Aguirre, the Mexican coach and the outpouring of affection came the day before Argentina’s last-16 match against the central Americans.
During that match, it was an unusually calm Maradona who separated Mexican and the Argentine players when they brawled at half time. He may not have reacted the same way if it was Mexico who were a goal to the good despite one of their players being clearly offside, as Carlos Tevez was when he gave Argentina the lead. Perhaps that’s the secret to Maradona’s new found Zen – when the team is winning, he has no reason to get out of control.
That does not mean he has not had any choice jabs. His best one yet came at the expense of Germany and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The German midfielder lashed out at Argentina ahead of their quarter-final clash, saying the Albiceleste often try to manipulate the referee. Maradona responded by making it plain that he does not care what Schweinsteiger said and then he pulled the trigger by turning to the camera asking, in a German accent “What’s the matter Schweinsteiger, are you nervous?”
But even the Hand of God failed to change his team’s fortune against the rampant Germans like he did for his.
Firdose Moonda is a Johannesburg based journalist
Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th, 2010.