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A Troubled Figure, Still Revered

Times Staff Writer

Diego Armando Maradona was last seen in public on Sunday, leaning from the railing of his private box at La Bombonera soccer stadium. On the field, his old team, Boca Juniors, was winning easily. But the usually animated Maradona looked bad: sweaty, bloated and depressed.

The youthful Maradona was considered the greatest soccer player of his era, a mop-haired ragamuffin with a magical left foot. Now, at 43, he is a tragic and troubled figure. A few Argentines think he’s an embarrassment, even though he is without question their most famous citizen.

Much like Elvis Presley in his final days, the life of the man known to Argentines as “El Diego” has degenerated into a morass of paternity suits, drug abuse, obesity and business disputes.

Only when the crowd at La Bombonera on Sunday launched into a vulgar chant against his former manager did Maradona seem to perk up. Argentine television showed him raising a fist as he sang along. Later that evening, at a postgame party, his family summoned an ambulance.

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Argentine television stations broke into their programming late Sunday with a bulletin: El Diego was in “extremely grave” condition.

Maradona remained in guarded condition Friday in the intensive care unit of a Buenos Aires hospital. An entire nation was tuned in for updates on his condition: in a stupor after having aspirated his own vomit, which resulted in a lung infection.

In the afternoon, Argentine television finally brought some good news to his fans: After more than 100 hours connected to an artificial respirator, “El Diego can now breathe on his own,” Sandra Borghi of the TN network announced.

Borghi spoke while standing outside the Swiss-Argentine Clinic in this city’s fashionable Barrio Norte neighborhood. Since Sunday evening, the hospital’s front door has become a place of pilgrimage. Fans light candles in a round-the-clock vigil. Tourists show up to have their pictures taken before the many tributes pasted to the facade.

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“I came to support Maradona, because for all us Argentines and for the supporters of Boca, he is our god,” said Rodrigo Quintana, a 23-year-old university student. “I’d like to be here when he gets out. That would be the ultimate.”

For all his flaws, Maradona is still a beloved figure here, remembered for his sporting triumphs -- including Argentina’s victory in the 1986 World Cup -- and for the joyful artistry he displayed from the first time he played soccer professionally, at age 15.

“Maradona is what a kid dreams when he steps onto the field. It’s a simple as that,” historian Osvaldo Bayer wrote this week. “Later, he became something he should have never been. He fell from grace when he should have been a hero.”

Maradona’s drug problems first came to light in 1991, near the peak of his career, when he tested positive for cocaine while playing in Italy. “I was, I am and I will always be an addict,” he told a Buenos Aires magazine in 1996.

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In 2000, his heart stopped briefly during a visit to an Uruguayan beach resort. Commentators blamed an entourage of “yes men” for his problems. He had been, like Presley, a teenager from an impoverished family, suddenly made rich and set loose in a world of licentiousness.

The conventional wisdom was that El Diego would never get better unless he got away from his friends. So he spent much of the last three years living in Cuba, at a drug treatment center.

While in Cuba, Maradona declared himself a friend and sympathizer of Fidel Castro and had a portrait of fellow Argentine Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a hero of the Cuban revolution, tattooed on his biceps.

In recent months, Maradona reportedly had grown bored on the island. His return to Argentina was delayed, however, by a lawsuit for unpaid child support filed by a woman who had won a paternity suit against him. If he came back, he told an interviewer, “I might go straight to jail.”

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After the suit was settled, Maradona arrived in Buenos Aires last month to a slate of television appearances. He fired his manager, Guillermo Coppola, after accusing him of cheating him out of thousands of dollars. “Coppola was waiting for me to die,” Maradona said. “He was cashing in money due to me.... He betrayed me.”

After his hospitalization this week, Maradona’s doctor denied that the former player had overdosed on drugs. But Telam, the government news agency, reported that a urine sample taken at the hospital showed high levels of cocaine.

On Tuesday, a 26-year-old laboratory worker at the hospital was fired after snapping a photograph of Maradona and trying to sell it to the Spanish magazine Marca for more than $6,000.

“It was obvious that it was a picture taken with a cellphone,” Marca’s Juan Ignacio Gallardo told the Argentine newspaper La Nacion, explaining why he decided against buying the picture. “You could see a video monitor and a person connected to an artificial respirator but not the face because of all the tubes attached.”

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Afterward, Buenos Aires police tightened security at the hospital, placing agents at the door to Maradona’s room.

On the street outside, the vigil continued.

“I haven’t slept or eaten since Sunday,” a Boca supporter said Thursday. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure Diego gets out of this OK.”

On Friday afternoon, Maradona’s two daughters sent a letter to the crowd outside. Thank you for your support and concern, they said. But could you please keep the noise down -- Diego and the other 170 patients inside are trying to rest.

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Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.


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