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Diego Maradona Still National Hero in Argentina - 2004-04-27


Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona remains in intensive care at a Buenos Aires hospital where he is being treated for severe heart and lung problems. In recent years, Maradona has been better known for his drug addiction and bizarre behavior than his soccer, but he is still regarded as a national hero at home.

Paula Arguallo, 19, has spent the better part of the past week outside a Buenos Aires hospital for one simple reason: she worships Diego Maradona.

"For me, he is a god. He is the second coming of God," he said. "Luckily he is getting a little bit better everyday because of the support that we are all giving him."

That support has been non-stop ever since the 43-year-old Maradona was rushed to the hospital on April 18.

Maradona's illness has dominated the headlines here, much more so than when the president of Argentina was hospitalized just two weeks ago. Hordes of journalists give live minute-by-minute updates from the hospital, satellite television trucks line the streets and get-well cards line the hospital's marble walls. The makeshift Maradona memorial includes religious statues, candles, photos and hand-written signs that say things like "Diego, stay strong" and "we need you, Diego." Adrian Goycochea, 21, thinks his vigil will definitely help his idol.

"We need to be here by his side because he has always been by ours, giving so much to the people and our country," Mr. Goycochea said.

For most Argentines, Diego Armando Maradona represents the best, and perhaps, worst of their country. His dazzling soccer skills changed the world's most popular sport forever and helped cement Argentina's reputation as a soccer holy land, but his descent into drug addiction has left him a bloated shadow of his former self.

Alejandro Burghardt works for Boca Juniors, Argentina's most popular and successful soccer club where Maradona became a star in the early 1980s. Burghardt said that Maradona's humble beginnings and swashbuckling attitude endeared him to the masses of passionate soccer fans here.

"With Diego Maradona, Argentines found a grand personality," Mr. Burghardt said. "He did not just represent the downtrodden of society, he represented all Argentines and perhaps this is why he is renowned all over the world."

During his 20-year career Maradona won championships in Argentina and Italy, but his crowning achievement was the 1986 World Cup where he almost single-handedly led Argentina to victory, scoring two of the most lauded goals in soccer history, including the infamous "Hand of God" goal.

For all the domination on the field, Maradona has never been able to tame his demons off the field. Surrounding himself with an ever-changing posse of shady handlers, he has often lived in a haze of drugs and booze.

His drug use earned him numerous suspensions, including his banishment from the 1994 World Cup. He has been linked to the mafia, arrested for tax evasion, fathered a son out of wedlock and is currently separated from his wife.

Maradona has spent the better part of the last four years as a guest of Fidel Castro in Cuba while undergoing treatment for drug addiction. Despite all the scandals, Argentine journalist Carla Rebello said that Maradona will never run out of second chances with the Argentine people.

"Because he gave us a lot of happiness, that is the most important," she said. "He gave us the best moment of Argentina. We remember here the World Cups. We know he has a lot of problems, the problems with the drugs and we can forgive him."

While Argentines continue to absolve their soccer god for his sins, Maradona's ongoing self-destructive behavior has made some here ask if he is ready to give up his divine title forever.