BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -
With Diego Maradona in charge at the World Cup, Argentines are bracing themselves for bombshells: a startling outburst, a scandal or even the unspeakable - a third World Cup trophy.
Maradona is apt to do anything. He has ridiculed the Pope and George W. Bush, got away with a fast one in his famous "Hand of God" goal, and nearly died of a drug overdose. He was one of the game's greatest players and still overshadows FIFA's reigning player of the year and Argentina's great hope - Lionel Messi.
Maradona has even promised a bit of streaking. He swears he'll run naked around the famed Obelisk in downtown Buenos Aires if Argentina wins the World Cup.
It's certain to be that kind of tournament in South Africa: win, lose or drama.
"If he wins the World Cup," said Daniel Arcucci, a sports editor at the Argentine daily La Nacion, "prepare yourself for everything."
In Argentina, the saying goes, the country has 40 million people - and 40 million coaches.
No country wants to win the World Cup more than Argentina. The national team has the world's best player in Messi, but most doubt Maradona is the man to do the job. In his 19 months as coach, he tried out 107 different players. World Cup qualifying was an ordeal - including a 6-1 loss to Bolivia and a 3-1 loss at home to bitter rival Brazil.
When Argentina defeated Uruguay, finally ending a draining struggle to reach the World Cup finals, Maradona erupted with a stream of profanities on live TV, telling critics of his coaching where to go.
Arcucci, a friend of Maradona who has written two books about him, including Maradona's autobiography, cringed as he watched the scene.
He suggested in a note to family members that it would have more dignified for a man who will turn 50 later this year to act more reasonably. Arcucci described the unpredictable tantrums as "arrogant and unproductive."
Telling the story seated in his office in downtown Buenos Aries, Arcucci laughed about the reaction he received.
"They told me, 'But that would not have been Maradona."'
Maradona had virtually no coaching experience, but was handed the job by Argentine football association president Julio Grondona. He got his coaching licence through connections. Victorio Bocco, head of the national coaching association, said Maradona received the exception because his busy schedule kept him from attending lessons.
Maradona named his 23-man World Cup squad last week on the same day he ran over the foot of a cameraman who crowded around his car to get footage. Maradona let go with another string of profanities.
More chaos. On the eve of the World Cup he has been accused of forcing out the previous Argentina coach - Alfio Basile - so he could take over. Jorge Ribolzi, a former assistant to Basile, was one of several to support the claims and spared no words in describing Maradona's character.
"As a person (Maradona) is garbage," Ribolzi said. "He's good for nothing. No dignity."
In the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup against England, Maradona scored what is known as the "Hand of God" goal. Maradona leaped high with an outstretched arm, and knocked the ball behind England goalkeeper Peter Shilton. The English protested immediately for a handball. The call was never given, and Maradona got away with one.
It wasn't until 2004 that he finally admitted he'd touched the ball with his hand.
He scored again four minutes later, a goal that was voted the best of the century by FIFA.
The game perfectly framed Maradona's image. One goal by a scoundrel, the second by a superstar.
Using perfect vision, he dribbled around six English players to score. Argentina won 2-1 and went on to win the World Cup just four years after it had been disgraced by Britain in the Falklands War, with Britain keeping possession of the disputed South Atlantic islands - which Arcucci says Maradona used as motivation.
"Scoring a goal with my hand was like robbing from a thief," Arcucci quoted Maradona as saying.
See GOLDEN, page B2
Some liken the former No. 10 to the classic "picaro" character of 16th century Spanish literature, the rascal who lives by his wits and seeks every advantage. For some this is a defect, for others it's at the same time a virtue.
Maradona grew up in the Buenos Aires shantytown of Villa Fiorito and was pulled out of a cesspit as a child by his uncle, Cirilo. His up-and-down life reflects that of the Argentine state itself, which has faced financial chaos, hyperinflation, military coups and dictatorships since its founding 200 years ago. Eight years ago the country defaulted on its international debt, prompting violent street protests and frozen bank accounts.
Soccer in Argentina has always been more dependable than the government. Argentina is again among the World Cup favourites, which it never is in economic stability, growth or qualify of life.
Despite always dividing public opinion, Maradona's escape from poverty still resonates with many in a country where reaching the middle class is increasingly difficult.
"Maradona is the synthesis of Argentina, of Argentine identity," said Guillermo Oliveta, president of the Argentina Marketing Association. "He came from dire poverty and went up so quickly in social status. ... And he has crashed - been knocked out so many times and failed - just like the country."
As a child he was known as "El Pelusa" for his curly hair. The word literally means "lint" in Spanish and is also used to describe poor street kids. Now he's more often called "El Pibe de Oro" - the Golden Boy.
"The guy (Maradona) came from humble roots, like many people here," said Gustavo, an inmate at a prison on the outskirts of Buenos Aires who is serving time for armed robbery. "He is kind of like we are, but had better luck."
Standing nearby watching inmates play soccer in a grey-dirt courtyard - rust-stained yellow walls topped by razor wire - was Fabian Venzi, assistant director of Unit 23 of the Florencio Varela penitentiary complex.
"Maradona was the greatest player. You can't dispute that," he said. "But my opinion of him goes down whenever he opens his mouth."
As a celebrity, there's no question: Maradona is larger than life.
He's fought cocaine addiction, alcoholism and acknowledged that he fathered a child out of wedlock when he played for Italian club Napoli. He once fired an air rifle at journalists.
That's just for openers.
He was near death six years ago after suffering a heart attack attributed to a cocaine overdose. He's had a gastric bypass to lose weight, and in 2005 his Argentine talk show, "La Noche del 10" (The Night of the No. 10), soared to unexpected popularity. In Italy, where he played, he has an unpaid tax bill estimated at US$50 million.
Most people wear one watch, or none. Maradona wears two - one on each wrist.
Speaking on TV a few weeks ago, Maradona said he's been off drugs and alcohol for six years. A small, pudgy man these days, he's grown a grey-flecked beard and moustache, apparently to cover scars left when his pet Shar Pei bit him on the lip and face two months ago, wounds that needed 10 stitches to close.
"Everything about Maradona is exaggerated - the good and the bad," Arcucci said. "There is no middle ground with him. As a player he was No. 1. He can be charming, but in his private life he's broken all the rules: overdosed on drugs, his statements are always overboard and polemic."
Much of Maradona's aura has been fuelled by Argentina's tabloid press, and he always makes good copy.
The Associated Press asked for a one-on-one interview with Maradona and was told by his press chief Fernando Molina that the price would be US$120,000, the going rate for a 30-minute interview with foreign journalists. A few years ago the BBC was criticized for paying to speak to Maradona.
"He has charisma and he is great for the press here," said Leandro Zanoni, who has written a recent book about Maradona and the press called "Living in the Media."
"He always says something interesting or polemical, or something that causes big problems," Zanoni said. "It does not matter if what he says is incoherent. He needs the media, and the media needs him.
"If Maradona had been born in Canada, he would have been a great player, but he would not have been Maradona and generated the life story he did here."
This is a guy who even has a satirical religion named after him: The Maradonian Church, which measures the years from the date of his birth. This is 49AD (after Diego). The fake church also claims in jest that every church needs a god, so it claims Maradona.
The church's logo is D10S. No. 10 was the number Maradona famously wore, and "dios" is Spanish for "god."
He's inspired songs, including one called "La Mano de Dios" by the late Rodrigo Bueno. One line goes: "If Jesus stumbled and fell, why shouldn't he be permitted to do it too?"
Liliana Chazenbalk, a psychology professor at the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires, described Maradona as a person living "between being a god and human."
"Even though he has been connected to drugs alcohol and scandals and other negative things, he is always forgiven," she said. "He is seen on one hand as very human and flawed, but on the other as a god. Young boys wear tattoos of him, trying to get closer to him - to be closer to a god."