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Maradona Carries Argentina’s Hopes for World Cup Soccer Championship : A MARKED MAN

Times Staff Writer

It was three weeks or so ago that it happened.

In and of itself, it was nothing more than just another goal in just another game. Only this one was different. This one was being talked about in Buenos Aires, Argentina, almost as soon as the ball was in the back of the net in Naples, Italy.

It was a soccer game, of course, but before you turn the page, pause to consider this: Only Pele in his prime had both the ability and the vision to have done what Diego Armando Maradona did that Sunday afternoon in Naples.

Napoli, Maradona’s team, was at home to defending Italian League champion Verona and, as usual, sold-out San Paolo Stadium was awash with blue, the flags and banners of the 77,000 fans providing a perfect backdrop to the orange, red and yellow of their exploding flares and fireworks.

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The Neopolitans were leading, 2-0, early in the second half and had the match well under control. The Verona goalkeeper, who already had endured a long afternoon, cleared the ball well upfield, punting it at least 60 yards as if wanting to be rid of it for good. Then he turned and strolled toward his nets, his back toward to the field.

Meanwhile, the kick had been headed back toward the Verona goal by one of the Napoli players and had reached Maradona, lurking on the left flank some 35 yards from the goalmouth. Maradona brought the ball under instant control, took a quick look downfield and then hit the ball on the volley, sending it in a high arc over the heads of four retreating defenders, over the desperate last-second lunge by the startled goalkeeper, under the crossbar and, incredibly, . . .

. . . into the net.

Goal!

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The shot was so unexpected, so daring in its conception and so perfect in its execution, that even Napoli’s rivals were forced to applaud.

Said France’s Michel Platini, the European player of the year and one of the world’s top goal scorers: “Just once in my career before I retire I would like to score a goal like that.”

For Maradona, who arrived in Los Angeles Monday night and who will be playing at the Coliseum Thursday evening when his national team, Argentina, meets Mexico at 8 p.m. in a warmup game between the two World Cup teams, the goal typified the changes he has undergone since that bitter afternoon in Barcelona, Spain, 3 1/2 years ago when he was ejected from Argentina’s crucial World Cup game against Brazil.

Then, Maradona was a 21-year-old buckling under the pressure of being called the next Pele, of being expected to lead Argentina’s defense of the World Cup it had won in 1978, of being newly transferred from his Argentine club team, Boca Juniors, to Spanish powerhouse Barcelona for $8 million.

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Now, Maradona is a 25-year-old beginning to show that the comparisons with Pele are not altogether unwarranted. He no longer plays for Barcelona, having being transferred to Naples in the summer of 1984 for a record $12 million.

And, whereas playing in Spain was a difficult and sometimes painful experience, Italy is exactly the opposite. He is happy there and said as much in a September interview with London’s World Soccer magazine.

“Naples is a city that lives for football--25 hours a day,” he said. “As soon as I arrived, I became a sort of symbol to them. And I was pleased to accept that responsibility because I understood that the people of Naples have to live with many problems. The fans have to sacrifice to buy their match tickets. I can identify with that. I came from a poor background myself, so I understand.”

Maradona is hardly poor now. His annual income, including endorsements, commercials, appearance fees and the like, is estimated at $2 million. It may well be more.

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More important, however, is the fact that the financial security and the support of the fans in Naples has allowed him to exude confidence on the field. He feels free to try the unexpected, to experiment, to give free reign to his multiple talents. The goal against Verona is a perfect example.

In short, Maradona is a far more complete player, a far more dangerous player, now than he was three years ago.

This fact has not been lost on Carlos Bilardo, Argentina’s World Cup coach. This summer, Bilardo named Maradona captain of the national team, replacing Daniel Passarella, the defender who had led Argentina to its 1978 World Cup triumph and who also had captained the 1982 team in Spain.

Now, if Argentina fails in Mexico next year, it will be Maradona who will share the blame with Bilardo. For his part, Maradona says the captaincy is an honor, but not something he actively sought.

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“When talk started about who should be captain, it made no difference to me,” he said. “Then I read in an Argentina magazine, El Grafico , that Bilardo wanted me to captain the team and I was very proud to accept.”

With Argentina already having qualified for next June’s World Cup, Maradona can, for the moment, continue to enjoy the good life in Italy. In Naples, he is virtually a god. Or at least a saint. The fans call him San Diego.

When he arrived there last year, for example, 85,000 people turned up at San Paolo Stadium--not to see him play, just to welcome him.

Attendance at Napoli’s San Paolo Stadium has jumped 20,000 a match since Maradona’s arrival. Napoli now averages 77,457 fans per game, second in the world only to Barcelona’s 100,834.

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The fans call the change he has wrought in the team’s fortunes Maradona’s Miracle.

In the match against Verona, one enterprising Italian, taking advantage of Maradona’s trademark mop of curly black hair, produced, wait for it, the Maradona wig. His entire supply of 15,000 was sold out in next to no time.

So recognizable a figure is Maradona worldwide, in fact, that he recently was named a UNICEF ambassador for the children of the world, an honor previously bestowed on such luminaries as Danny Kaye, Peter Ustinov and Caterina Valente.

Just how much interest does Maradona attract? Well, for Thursday night’s game at the Coliseum--part of whose proceeds are going to benefit Navidad en el Barrio, this is the media lineup:

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--Five radio stations and one television station broadcasting live to Argentina, where the game will be aired from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.

--Two Argentine newspapers, La Nacion and Clarin , and two sports magazines, El Grafico and Goles , have sent writers to cover the game.

--An Italian sports daily, Rome’s Corriere Dello Sport Stadio , sent a writer and photographer with Maradona and they will follow him from Los Angeles to Acapulco, Mexico City and Puebla, where Argentina and Mexico again meet on Sunday. Proceeds from the second game will benefit victims of September’s disastrous earthquakes.

--Televisa, the Mexican television giant, will broadcast the game live to Mexico, while the Spanish International Network (SIN) will show it on tape delay (Dec. 7) to 364 outlets in the United States.

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--The game will be carried live by radio stations in Guadalajara and San Francisco.

--Five Mexico City newspapers, Esto , La Aficion , Excelsior , El S ol de Mexico and Ovaciones , have sent sportswriters to Los Angeles for the match.

All of this interest, naturally, is due in part to next summer’s World Cup, now just six months away.

In Mexico, Maradona will be even more closely marked than he was in Spain, where he allowed the constant fouls of opposing players to goad him into retaliation. How he deals with the tight man-to-man coverage could well decide Argentina’s fate.

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He says he is prepared for the physical punishment he undoubtedly will receive.

“First, because--as long as I am not injured--I will make sure that I go to Mexico at my peak in terms of physique and technique. Secondly, I hope that the refereeing will be very different from the standards we saw in Spain in 1982.

“I believe that in South America players are better protected by referees who are much more severe than Europeans in punishing fouls on forwards. In South America, a bad tackle is always a foul. That’s not true of Italy and still less is true of Spain. I am, even so, confident of the refereeing next year.”

The goal, of course, is to win the World Cup. It is too late, perhaps, for Maradona to emulate Pele’s feat of three World Cup triumphs. To have had a realistic chance at that, he would have had to have been a member of the victorious 1978 team, but he was cut at the last minute by Coach Cesar Luis Menotti, who thought Maradona, at 17, was too young for the rigors of World Cup play.

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Menotti was probably wrong. Pele, after all, won his first World Cup in Sweden in 1958 when he was just 16.

Still, Maradona would be satisfied to win just one world championship.

And if he does not? If the World Cup once again eludes him? Will he go on playing, awaiting 1990 when Italy will be play host to the quadrennial event? Or will he retire?

“I can’t predict how I shall feel about playing football at whatever age " he said. “If it were possible, I would want to play until I am 100. I don’t want to stop playing. I have seen too many players who have left the game and just live on their memories.”

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For Diego Armando Maradona, memories are something still to be made.


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