At first I thought the email was a joke: Maradona and Pele, it read, would both be present in Qatar to open a new sports academy.
Usually such an honour would be reserved for government ministers, or even minor royalty. But somehow someone, somewhere, had persuaded two of the world’s most famous sportsmen to, come to a quiet, inoffensive country in the Middle East to open a glorified leisure centre.
The Qataris had pulled out all the stops to get them. Both were rumoured to have been paid half a million dollars just to turn up and the region’s press would be flown in to witness the pair share a stage, putting their enmity behind them to discuss the footballing issues of the day. I didn’t need to be asked twice. But as Qatar’s policy of pumping huge sums into sport seemed to be continuing as normal, the country had changed since my last visit ten months previously. Six weeks after I’d left Marcel Desailly and the De Boer brothers [who had been paid huge sums to play on the local league], Omar Ahmed Abdullah – a seemingly normal, friendly Egyptian computer programmer – packed his 4x4 with explosives and rammed into the Doha Players Theatre. Qatar’s first suicide bombing killed one person and injured scores more.
When viewed against the daily three-figure casualty numbers from Iraq, a single death in Qatar seemed tragically insignificant. But it had a far more damaging effect on Qatar’s psyche. It shattered the idyllic complacency that had allowed life to go on as normal as the states around it degenerated into an internecine anarchy. Returning back to Doha International, it was clear that Qatar had lost something of its innocence. Every hotel now had metal detectors at its front door and huge concrete barriers had been universally erected to prevent suicide bombers from approaching by car. The government had been particularly worried that the bombing would jeopardise its huge investment in sporting set pieces, not least its hosting of the 2006 Asian Games, and had responded with police state measures to ensure that the bombing wasn’t repeated.
All this didn’t seem to bother Maradona much as he careered around the Aspire training pitch, looking ten years younger than his forty-one, slide tackling boys a quarter of his age and still getting aerated enough to argue with the referee even though it was a kick around with kids. It was a Damascene recovery. Sure, some of his pace was gone, but that unmistakable, blurry-legged, barrel-chested gait was still there. He even had time to instinctively punch the ball into the net, much to the whooping delight of the English journalists assembled. I doubt they gave him the same honour when God intervened to score in the same manner against England in Mexico 20 years previously. Just as Fenwick and Butcher did back in 1986, the Qatari children looked on incredulously.
Maradona was the exact opposite, sitting for an hour talking about everything from Argentina’s chances in the World Cup to how, despite all the money in the game, he would still choose to play for Napoli if he was 21 today.
Yet Maradona’s impish charm beguiled all who encountered him – presidents, statesmen, royalty, even English journalists – which was never more evident than when, sweating from the 20-minute-long exertion, he decided to sign some autographs. The circle around him grew as Arab men in flowing white dishdashas and the previously restrained press corps literally threw children out of their path to get to their hero, to touch him, to feel his sweat on their hands. Eventually security guards had to intervene and hauled Maradona out of the ruck, beaming with the knowledge that – whatever FIFA thought – he was still number one.
This issue had preoccupied him for some time. When FIFA offered the public the chance to vote for their player of the century, Maradona won hands down. But FIFA, fearing Maradona’s exalted position would set a bad example to the kids, chose to give the award to Pele as well. Maradona was furious, debate raged from Sao Paulo to Manila and the two men’s already strained relationship was all but destroyed. To say Maradona had a chip on his shoulder about it is like saying George W. Bush is indifferent to Al Qaeda. It consumed him and, if anything, has given him the impetus to turn his life around and to claim the legacy he sees as rightfully his.
“Who is the greatest? My mother says it’s me. And you should always believe your mother.” The crowd of a dozen or so journalists ignited into spontaneous, sycophantic laughter.
Maradona, now wearing a casual shirt and jeans, sat in front of us, slumped in a chair the same way a wayward schoolboy would confrontationally sit in the headmaster’s office after he’d set fire to a classroom. He smiled at his ability to make a room of educated middle-aged men fawn at his feet and nonchalantly answered questions about football, drugs and his former life as a very fat man. Maradona was articulate in a rough, uncomplicated kind of way. After years of being barracked by the press, you would have thought that he would come across as guarded, even reticent. But he was the exact opposite, sitting for an hour talking about everything from Argentina’s chances in the World Cup to how, despite all the money in the game, he would still choose to play for Napoli if he was 21 today.
His most interesting moments came when he talked politics, openly criticising George W. Bush for the war in Iraq. ‘[Hugo] Chavez, Fidel [Castro] and Che Guevara they fought for their people, to give them more equality [and] they fought against the United States and anyone who fights against the US is good for me,’ he said when asked about the influence of his friend Fidel.
Maradona famously has a tattoo of Che on his shoulder, but few would have thought that it signified anything other than a pretty adornment rather than a deep affinity with left-wing politics. ‘I was at the summit in Argentina two weeks ago and I know Bush commanded the war from Qatar. But I support Qatar and an assassin is an assassin anywhere. Every country has the freedom to make its own laws and make a decision and you must respect that. So even if he leaves Qatar, an assassin can kill from everywhere.’ The summit he was referring to was the Summit of the Americas. Maradona had just been involved in his first act of political agitation. After securing a five-hour interview with Fidel on his talk show, Maradona decided that he was done talking, wanted to get active and decided to organise an anti-Bush protest. Bush was in town to thrash out free-trade agreements with governments increasingly turning leftwards and wary of the economic liberalism that their forebears had subscribed to in the 1990s. ‘No to Bush!’ Maradona declared to the local press after the Fidel interview. ‘Fellow Argentines, we will be waiting for you at the march.’
This is an extract from James Montague’s When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone (Mainstream)
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