Extreme Football SOCCER IS A RELIGION IN ARGENTINA, AND THE REIGNING DEITY IS A CAPRICIOUS AND DISSIPATED BAD BOY NAMED MARADONA

February 26, 2002

One of Argentina's most notorious soccer hooligans, a man known
as the Butcher, has just stuck a loaded pistol in my pants.
We're in La Boca, the Italian quarter of Buenos Aires, a few
blocks from the stadium of the Boca Juniors, the most popular
team in the land. The Butcher was laughing as he jammed that
handgun into the waistband of my boxer shorts, pointing
menacingly toward a part of my anatomy I would prefer not to
lose. "If you're going to spend time with the fans here,
Americano," says Quique (the Butcher) Ocampo, drawing on 40
years of experience in such matters, "you'll need this."

The Butcher may only be joking, but you never know. I had come
to Buenos Aires in November to spend a week in the maelstrom to
witness the magical realism, if you will, of Argentine soccer.
There's so much that is wonderful and terrifying and farcical
about soccer in Argentina. No nation has won as many World Cups
in the last quarter-century (two), and oddsmakers predict a
third is on the way next June. No player has inspired more
adulation (or hatred) than Diego Maradona, a living myth on the
order of Evita. No fans are more passionate than the singing,
chanting (and, yes, gun-toting) followers of Boca Juniors, River
Plate and Newell's Old Boys, teams that are British in name but
undeniably Latin in flavor.

Should I have been surprised when the Butcher stuck a pistol in
my shorts? This is a country, after all, where champion soccer
players celebrate by letting fans tear off their clothes, where
the Volkswagen Golf has been rechristened the Gol and where
sports journalists apply for credentials by stating their name,
their affiliation and--I'm not making this up--their blood type.

There he goes again. He can't help himself. Diego Maradona is
insulting America. "How can we talk about violence in soccer
when the Americans are bombing Afghanistan?" he snaps, arms
crossed tightly over his chest, like a banana republic dictator.
El Diego, as the 41-year-old Maradona likes to be called, is in
a sour mood. He has just arrived from Havana, where two years of
rehab as a guest of Fidel Castro have scarcely improved his
drug-addled, blubber-saddled state. No matter. More than 50,000
fans have bought tickets for his upcoming farewell game,
Argentina's soccer event of the year, and nearly 200 journalists
have filled a ballroom for a press conference that, as if
mocking sponsors named Advance and Speedy, begins two hours late.

Long before Maradona arrives, runway models sashay about,
flogging samples of the new Diego Maradona cologne, which a
panting publicist promises me "smells much better than Michael
Jordan's cologne." All the while loudspeakers blare the official
Maradona tribute CD, over and over, an endless loop:

It's true, Diego is the greatest there is,
He's our religion, our identity.
With his heart he gave us triumph
And glory!
For being the very best,
Diego Armando Maradooooo....

Argentina's ruling deity, wearing three gold chains and glasses
with purple lenses, finally strides in, entourage in tow, to a
standing ovation. A teenage girl in ripped jeans asks him to
dance. Disco music suddenly blasts overhead. Maradona rises and
shimmies. "Is that enough?" he says a few seconds later. More
than enough. Later another questioner, a woman sporting a bare
midriff, tight jeans and a studded belt, storms the dais and
salaciously presents Maradona with a cigar. The gallery
whistles. In due time Maradona is asked about the state of the
Marxist revolution ("It's good"), whether he plans on returning
full time to Argentina ("Let's not talk about that") and his
weight problems. "Let me enjoy this," he sneers, and he's off,
shuttled through a side door by his henchmen.

He's not done slamming Uncle Sam, however. Before the week is
out, an Argentine magazine will publish a photo of Maradona at
his birthday party, giddily pulling on an Osama bin Laden mask.
The morning after the press conference, the front page of one
daily paper shows former president Carlos Menem embracing
Maradona, who has donned a black turban in support of the
Taliban. "This picture represents Maradona 100 percent," says
Ezequiel Fernandez Moores, a longtime Argentine journalist.
"Maradona survives by surprising people with acts that provoke.
Now he visits his friend Menem, who is extremely pro-American,
and yet Maradona is wearing a turban, as if he's part of the
Taliban! Here is Maradona's unpredictability, his
contradictions, his provocation--all in a single photo."

"Did you hear?" the Butcher asks me. "Michael Jordan is coming to
Maradona's tribute game!"

I have indeed heard the news. According to Maradona's people, in
addition to dozens of international soccer stars, Jordan, Tiger
Woods and Formula One champion Michael Schumacher will be
attending. There's no chance Jordan (or, let's be honest, Woods
or Schumacher) will be winging in to Buenos Aires for Maradona's
farewell match, but Quique (pronounced KEY-kay) Ocampo is so
excited that I don't have the heart to tell him.

At 66 Ocampo's white hair, jowly smile and animated eyes belie a
sordid past: In the early 1960s he became Argentina's first
professional hooligan. It all started when he and a dozen
hard-core Boca Juniors fans decided to follow Boca wherever it
played in the South American club tournament. As their leader
Ocampo approached Boca's club directors, demanding free trips
and game tickets in exchange for their vocal support of the
team--no small contribution--and protection from the fists of
the Butcher's followers. "Quique the Butcher was superpowerful
within the club," says a recent book on the history of Argentine
hooliganism. "His methods were violent. He didn't talk, he
threatened."

"I was born in the street," Ocampo says, smiling. "I know how the
street works."

Before long nearly all the Argentine clubs, large and small, had
similar gangs--barra bravas, they were called--and the Butcher
acquired a sizable piece of fame. He was the Zelig of Argentine
soccer, always there, following Boca to Japan and England,
Germany and Spain, Brazil and the United States, never paying a
single peso. There's the Butcher in Germany, cowbell in hand,
congratulating Boca's players on winning the 1978 world club
title. There's the Butcher, wearing a porn-star mustache,
enjoying a meal with Boca's players and coaching staff.

In 1980 Ocampo was ousted as chief, but he kept traveling to
games, leading a crew of 30 or so young toughs, which is how I
met him in 1994. I was a 20-year-old college student in search
of the ultimate South American road trip. Ignoring my friends'
warnings (Boca fans kill people!), I joined the Butcher's crew
for a 24-hour excursion to Rosario. We drank Quilmes beer (a
sort of poor man's Natural Light), shared bad jokes and sang
Boca anthems through the night. The game went off without
incident, but in the confusion afterward I got separated from
the group. Two hours later, giving up hope, I took a cab to the
train station, where an amazing thing happened: I found the
Butcher and his gang. The natural-born killers had waited for
me. "Americano!" the old hooligan said, wrapping me in a bear hug.

I fell in love with Argentine soccer fans that summer. I loved
the thousands of papelitos, tiny scraps of newspaper, that
supporters hurled on command, creating a storm cloud of confetti
to welcome their team. I loved the way chant leaders pumped
their fists while leaning out over the stadium terraces,
clutching their long, narrow flags like climbers rappelling down
a rock face. I loved their goofy yet heartfelt chants, to the
tune of such incongruously lame songs as Culture Club's Karma
Chameleon. And I loved the traditional vuelta Olimpica, the
"Olympic victory lap," during which fans would celebrate
championships by joyously stripping their heroes down to their
jockstraps.

Times have changed, though, Ocampo tells me. Much like the
deficit-ridden Argentine government, the country's
first-division clubs are in crisis, a combined $250 million in
debt. In Argentina every team is a small-market team, thanks to
the global economy. "Boca always sells its best players to
Europe," Ocampo says, sounding a lot like a Montreal Expos fan.
What's more, Argentina's economic collapse has turned soccer
stadiums into less festive places. In the past year five people
have died in and around Argentine stadiums due to hooliganism.
"It's much more dangerous than when I was chief," the Butcher
says. "There's too much violence, too many drugs around the fans
nowadays." Adds Ocampo's friend Luis Lamboglia, "In Quique's day
we only used our fists. Today they use knives and guns."

So the Butcher travels less these days, minding his store in La
Boca, schmoozing with old cronies. When he learned that I was
going to a game, he casually pulled out that gun from his desk
and stuffed it in my pants, like a kindly grandfather handing out
a piece of candy. I politely declined and placed the enormous
pistol gently back on the desktop.

Why is Maradona so beloved? After all, he won only one World
Cup, in 1986, two fewer than Pele, who has never attracted the
same degree of fanaticism in his native Brazil. Everywhere you
turn, El Diego salutes you: from T-shirts bearing his maniacal
grin and his flexed, Che Guevara-tattooed biceps, above the
words GOD EXISTS; from newspaper articles entitled A Country
Called Maradona; from baby-blue-and-white Argentine flags, on
which Maradona's impish mug has replaced the blazing sun. Five
years after he last played competitively, 15 years after his
finest hour, Maradona remains a cult of personality: a national
treasure, a national psychosis. He eclipses the Argentine sun.

To gain some perspective, I pay a visit to the national team,
which is training for a World Cup qualifying match. The
Argentines, as usual, feature many of the world's top players,
proud men who look like models for ancient Greek sculptures. Yet
when I ask them about Maradona, they suddenly turn wistful,
reverent. Javier Zanetti of Inter Milan: "For many of us, what he
did on a soccer field made him similar to God." Juan Sebastian
Veron of Manchester United: "He's the best player in the history
of the world. I still have the photograph of the day we first
played together for Boca. It was one of the best moments of my
life."

Compare another player to Maradona, and be prepared to be
accused of blasphemy. "Those players come along only once every
century," says Veron, one of the best players in the world
today. "Diego was born, what, 41 years ago? So that means we
have 60 more years to go."

"Maradona represents what it means to be Argentine, the good and
the bad," Moores, the journalist, tells me. "The good, because
Argentina is a country of many talents--writers, musicians,
athletes. Maradona was a genius in soccer. Perhaps Pele was a
better player, but Maradona was artistically more pleasing. He
left unforgettable memories. Argentines are also known as
transgressors, lawbreakers, but in a good sense. They challenge
power when that power is authoritarian. Maradona represents
this, and Argentines like that. The bad? Maradona's
contradictions represent chanta, a very Argentine word. It means
shameless, more or less. For example, he says he represents the
people, and yet he's organizing a tribute game for himself, with
the profits for himself, and the cheapest tickets cost $25. The
people can't afford that. He denounces corruption, yet he owes
millions of dollars in taxes in Italy. He's a living double
standard. Chanta."

No moment better crystallized the many faces of Maradona than
the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal between Argentina and England.
Early in the second half Maradona rose up to meet a high ball
and punched it into the net with his fist. The referee never
noticed, and in the uproar that followed Maradona credited the
goal to "the hand of God."

Though he will forever be known to the English as a cheater,
Maradona added a second goal that day, only minutes later, a
60-yard slalom run through six helpless defenders that is widely
regarded as the greatest goal in World Cup history. "The first
goal was like sticking my hand in the purse of the English and
taking a coin that wasn't theirs. The second goal spoke for
itself," Maradona would say of the game, which took place only
four years after the two countries had fought the Falkland
Islands War. "It was something more than a soccer match. We beat
a nation."

The people of Argentina, needless to say, have not forgotten.

MARADOOOOO.... MARADOOOOO.... MARADOOOOO....

They have come, more than 50,000, to La Bombonera, to chant his
name, to thank him and to bid farewell--or, as one banner says, A
Dios ("To God"). The Argentine soccer federation is retiring his
number 10. Nobody at the highest level will ever again wear that
number. That's Maradona in Argentina.

MARADOOOOO.... MARADOOOOO.... MARADOOOOO....

It's a moving wall of sound, a typhoon of decibels. The fans
wave flags, hundreds of them, blue and gold for Boca (Maradona's
old team), baby blue and white for Argentina. They launch
thousands of papelitos in the air. They light orange smoke bombs
and toss them toward the field, tails flaring like miniature
comets. Say what you will about Italian ultras, Brazilian
torcidas or British punters, Argentine barra bravas have no
equal. During one game earlier in the week, at the stadium for
Racing Club, a stampede of them celebrated a goal by nearly
knocking me from my perch on a retaining wall into a moat 20
feet below. I saved myself only by hugging the cold concrete
with both arms and legs, and praying.

The fanatics at this game are no different. When Pele's smiling
face appears on the video screen--he's watching the game from a
box--a volcanic blast of derogatory whistles erupts. The two
players, one Brazilian, one Argentine, have the most bitter of
rivalries. In 2000 FIFA named two players of the century,
Maradona (who won a poll of fans on the Internet) and Pele (who
was chosen by a panel of writers and dignitaries). At the awards
gala in Rome, Maradona didn't stick around to shake Pele's hand;
he left the building immediately after accepting his plaque.
Though Pele has come to Buenos Aires in an apparent peacemaking
effort, the whistling fans won't give him a break. O MAIS GRANDE
DO MUNDO--the world's greatest--one blue-and-white Maradona
banner reads in Portuguese, reminding Pele, in his own language,
who's boss.

MARADOOOOO.... MARADOOOOO.... MARADOOOOO....

There's so much energy, so much pageantry. And then Maradona
shows up. He looks as if he's wearing a fat suit. A 25-foot-tall,
inflated blue-and-white number 10 shirt greets him at midfield.
"That must be Diego's jersey," says one Argentine wag. Maradona
is playing with the national team against a side of international
legends featuring Germany's Lothar Matthaus, Bulgaria's Hristo
Stoitchkov and Colombia's Carlos Valderrama. With his beachball
belly, puffy cheeks and penguin's waddle, he looks like a weekend
warrior who won a contest to play with the world's best for 90
minutes. You get the sense that even at 61, Pele could come down
from his box and dribble rings around the dissolute El Diego.

But that's not what we've come for. We've come to see Maradona
bury a penalty kick in the far corner, just like the old days; to
watch young men fight like piranhas for the jersey he throws into
the stands, ripping it to shreds; and to behold the scene that
unfolds at the end of the match, when the barra brava fire off a
10-minute-long volley of bottle rockets. Maradona walks slowly
toward them. He's crying now. His fans, his people, are crying
too. They're shaking the dingy rafters, climbing the 20-foot-high
retaining fence, dancing atop its three strands of barbed wire,
feeling no pain. For one moment, however brief, Maradona is
morphine.

There's so much that is wonderful, terrifying and farcical about
Argentine soccer. Within hours I'll leave South America, but that
haunting wail may never stop thundering through my head.

MARADOOOOO.... MARADOOOOO.... MARADOOOOO....

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Worshippers hit the links to welcome Maradona at his farewell game. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Maradona credited "the hand of God" for his seemingly miraculous--and clearly illegal--goal in '86 World Cup action (left). COLOR PHOTO: LEO MASON/SIPA [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY With his spirits high but his belly sagging, El Diego took the field. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Pele, the other player of the century, greeted the jeering crowd. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Maradona's press conference included disco dancing, flirtatious women and impromptu photo sessions. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Nothing can contain the passion of Maradona's wired fans.

NO PLAYER HAS INSPIRED MORE ADULATION OR HATRED THAN MARADONA, A
LIVING MYTH IN ARGENTINA.

25-FOOT-TALL inflated number 10 shirt IS ON THE FIELD. "MUST BE
DIEGO'S JERSEY," SAYS ONE WAG.

TWO YEARS OF REHAB as a guest of Castro have SCARCELY IMPROVED
DIEGO'S DRUG-ADDLED, BLUBBER-SADDLED STATE.

During a team's VICTORY LAP, FANS CELEBRATE BY STRIPPING THEIR
HEROES DOWN TO THEIR JOCKSTRAPS.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)