At the Estadio Cuauhtemoc in the city of Puebla last week, where Argentina played Italy in a first-round World Cup match, a blue and white banner proclaimed: FORZA AZZURRI! SAN DIEGO VI SALUTA! A Norteamericano might have thought that a group of Italian-American fans from San Diego had traveled down to Mexico to support their blue-shirted heroes of the Italian national team. The great majority of the 25,000 Spanish-speaking fans who were in the stadium, however, knew that "San Diego" could refer only to the short (not quite 5'5"), square-cut (152 pounds), massive-thighed, minibull of a man whom the London Times recently canonized as "the greatest footballer in the world"—Diego Armando Maradona of Argentina.
He's 25 now, no longer the infant prodigy, el cebollita, the little onion, who, still in his teens, was worth millions to rich European clubs and wound up with Barcelona. In 1984 he joined Italy's Napoli team. But almost the only difference an old fan noticed, as the dark, stocky young man ran onto the field, was that his hair seems to be cut shorter now. Everything else, as the game progressed, was pretty familiar: the barely credible acceleration, his way of slithering between two fullbacks when there was patently no room to do so, his ability to bend the ball in flight as if this were the Australian outback.
There was one unnerving indication of the march of time, though. It doesn't seem long since soccer papers were referring to Maradona as "the new Pelé." These days, they are automatically calling any new striker of promise "the new Maradona."
But there you are. World Cups tend to be won by stars, not teams. In 1958 the Cup belonged to Pelé. In 1982 it was Paolo Rossi's. There are exceptions, of course. England, not just Bobby Charlton, won in 1966. And this year, though it is still absurdly early to judge, the unexpected might of the Soviet Union, which drubbed a far from weak Hungarian team 6-0, is worthy of note.
But generally it is one man alone who raises a team from plain old courage and competence to genius. This time it could be Michel Platini of France, or local hero Hugo Sanchez of Mexico, or a player who has not yet emerged from the mire. Or it could be the year of Diego Maradona.
If he can stay in the game, that is. Like many enormously gifted players before him—George Best of Northern Ireland springs to mind—Maradona has already paid a formidable price for his genius in the currency of crippling pain. In his first World Cup, in Spain in 1982, he was mercilessly abused by the Italian defender Claudio Gentile ("This is not a dancing academy," Gentile said at the time) and others until, later in the tournament, he desperately hit out in retaliation. When the World Cup was over, he was signed by Barcelona of the Spanish League. But after barely a year with the club, in a league match against Bilbao Athletic, his opposing center back, Andoni Goicoechea, put him out of the game for 2½ months with a kick that dislocated his left ankle.
It was not the last time he was violently hacked down. When he arrived with the Argentine national team in San Cristóbal, Venezuela, for a World Cup qualification game in May 1985, someone in a crowd of fans kicked him in the right knee. In Colombia a few days later, exactly the same "accident" happened. When Argentina faced Venezuela in a return match at Buenos Aires in June, Maradona was kicked in the knee a third time. He suffered a lesion within the knee and expects to have surgery this winter. Fortunately, Maradona is left-footed and uses his right leg mainly for support. His legs, it is said, look to an orthopedic surgeon like those of a man 10 years older.
It was thought that in Argentina's first-round World Cup encounter in Mexico early last week, with the presumably uncalculating South Koreans, there would be a respite before Maradona met the hard men of Italy. Within two minutes, however, he had been chopped down by defender Joo-Sung Kim, and altogether he would suffer at least 10 more fouls in this game, some of them despairing (as when Kyung-Hoon Park put both arms around Diego from behind), and others plainly vicious (as when Jung-Moo Huh hit him in the face. For this, Huh received a yellow caution card, which can be a stiff penalty when you consider what a foul on Maradona can often bring, especially when the little big man himself takes the kick).
A few minutes later there was a second foul when Maradona was bowled over like a shot rabbit and had to get medical treatment on the field. He got up slowly, then slammed the resulting free kick straight into the Korean wall, taking the rebound square on that dark forehead and heading it to the right foot of Jorge Valdano, his center forward. Barely bothering to take aim, Valdano put it past the Korean keeper.
The South Koreans were evidently slow learners. Less than 12 minutes later, Maradona was upended again, far to the right of the Korean goal, and again, as captain, he elected to take the kick himself. This time he sent a slow curving one to where defender Oscar Ruggeri could jump up and nod it past South Korean goalie Yun-Kyo Oh, who never had a chance.
Early in the second half there came a classic Maradona move from just outside the box. Maradona left two defenders in his wake and kicked a low ball that his target, Valdano, easily tapped home. It was 3-0 now, though later, apparently through sheer Argentine listlessness, the Koreans were permitted to make the final score 3-1.
Not one of those three Argentine goals was scored by Maradona, but in a sense each one was his. That two of them resulted from free kicks is not surprising. More than 70% of goals at the top level of the game originate from dead-ball, set-piece plays—a fact which is a criticism of the way soccer is evolving. Indeed, it is the ability of such stars as France's Platini and Mexico's Sanchez to create scoring plays in the midst of live action that sets their names alongside that of Maradona when the roster of World Cup heroes—or this particular provisional roster—starts to be assembled.
Maradona almost lost the aura of a hero when he arrived at Barcelona in 1982. Barcelona is a civilized city, and it loved its soccer team. But when Maradona arrived and rented a house, then had the ceilings repainted to his but almost nobody else's taste and served guests at the dinner table with a plate in each hand, bouncing a soccer ball on his thigh, there was disapproval. There was more when he and his friends, five or six carloads, would close down restaurants for the evening.
In the end, though, the fooling had to come to a stop. Most important, the man whom many observers regarded as Diego's Svengali, his longtime agent Jorge Cyterszpiler, was quietly discarded. Thereafter, and especially after his transfer to Napoli of the Italian League, Maradona seemed to become a real athlete again.
That was apparent in Puebla last Thursday in what conceivably might have been a dress rehearsal for the World Cup final on June 29. Italy went ahead on a penalty kick by Alessandro Altobelli after, mysteriously and under no pressure, Argentina's midfielder Jorge Burruchaga touched the ball with his hands in his own penalty area. Only seven minutes had elapsed.
But with about 15 minutes left, a touch of genius came into play. Argentine goalie Nery Pumpido released a harmless-looking pass that Valdano eventually picked up in the Italian half. Valdano flicked it over the heads of Maradona and his Italian shadow, Salvatore Bagni. (Bagni happens to play with Diego on the Napoli team.) The men were standing side by side. What happened thereafter you might have been able to freeze on your VCR, but the unassisted eye simply saw Maradona surge away like Secretariat in his prime, virtually ignore Gaetano Scirea, Italy's captain, and left-foot the ball for the equalizer as if completing the pattern of a formal dance.
Final score: 1-1. It's that kind of perfection that makes Maradona San Diego.