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Fallen Soccer Icon Scores With TV Show

Times Staff Writer

He crooned. He grew teary-eyed. He traded head passes with soccer great Pele.

He emoted a tango verse, danced a waltz with an Italian bombshell, hugged everyone in sight and declared more than once, “Que lindo” -- How lovely.

Diego Armando Maradona, the stocky midfielder who led Argentina to the zenith of the soccer world two decades ago and then fell prey to drug addiction, obesity and celebrity malaise, made a glitzy comeback this week. His new incarnation: host of a weekly entertainment program, “La Noche del 10,” or The Night of 10, a reference to the number that adorned his jersey.

Monday’s much-anticipated late-night debut highlighted how Maradona, 44, was still revered here despite his tribulations with cocaine and corpulence, the latter resulting in stomach-stapling surgery that helped him lose more than 60 pounds.

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“I almost died,” he acknowledged at several points in the evening.

A little more than a year ago, the end seemed near as his adoring public held a vigil outside the Buenos Aires clinic where he was hospitalized.

Whatever Maradona’s shortcomings, he remains one of the country’s iconic and tragic figures, along with Eva Peron, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Carlos Gardel, the maestro of tango.

Monday’s encounter was billed as the first joint television appearance for two superior soccer players of their generations: O Rei, “the King” in Portuguese, as Pele is known, and Maradona, who burst on the scene after the Brazilian legend’s retirement in 1977.

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In a country cautiously rebounding from its 2001 financial collapse, Maradona’s return to the limelight was a welcome reminder of better times, when Argentines lived First World lifestyles and seemed oblivious to impending crash. Reviewers, fans and the ratings all indicated success for the show, though some viewers wondered aloud how long the good feelings would last. Argentines are intensely familiar with the boom-and-bust cycle.

“It seemed almost impossible that he would leave that clinic alive,” reflected Carlos Leiro, a 43-year-old businessman interviewed downtown. “But with Diego you never know if within 15 minutes some enormous scandal will appear with catastrophic results.”

Maradona appeared fit as he cavorted about, flashing his trademark smile, as women in various stages of undress gamboled nearby. It wasn’t too long ago, in the midst of his addiction, that a bloated Maradona seemed incoherent and incapable of easy movement.

His long-suffering family, including his elderly parents, shed tears from their front-row seats.

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Guests from the world of show business and sports gathered on white-cushioned seats emblazoned with Maradona’s image to swap doting anecdotes. Highlights of some of No. 10’s memorable moments were replayed along with clips of the mop-haired young Maradona working magic with the soccer ball.

“I was lucky,” Maradona, seemingly humbled by the years, allowed when reliving an extraordinary goal he scored while playing in Naples, Italy, where he is likewise adored to this day.

The day’s news didn’t figure in a 2 1/2 -hour kitsch-fest, which featured a slew of commercials from multinational concerns. South America may be a hotbed of anti-globalization sentiment, and Maradona is a proud admirer of Fidel Castro and Guevara, but economic philosophies were not up for discussion. Maradona sported a T-shirt with a credit card logo on the front, to go with his diamond-studded earrings and crucifix.

The climax of the evening was the appearance of Pele, another South American who rose from hardship to renown thanks to singular soccer talents. Pele, who also experienced financial and personal difficulties after hanging up his spikes, has since become a businessman and diplomat of soccer.

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The two ex-players chatted about the vagaries of fame. Maradona proffered his support for Pele’s son, Edson Cholbi Nascimento, a former professional soccer player who never approached his father’s stature and is now jailed in Brazil on drug charges.

Pele seemed moved, called Maradona an “example” for his imprisoned son, and was soon strumming a guitar and singing an autobiographical ballad.

Before long, they were knocking a soccer ball back and forth with their heads: 27 chances without a miscue.

They drifted offstage together in a haze of smoke and music and ecstatic fans and flashing lights, once again exulting in the adulation that has taken both men so far from their humble origins, but at no small cost.

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Times staff researcher Andres D’Alessandro contributed to this report.


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