FIFA’s World Cup chief executive Colin Smith did stress that Maradona is still a valued part of its Legend programme to promote football worldwide.
“The players who helped write the history of football have a part to play,” Smith said. “Diego Maradona, obviously one of the greatest footballers who ever lived, is a part of that.”
Following the obscene hand signals made by Maradona after Argentina turned their fortunes around by shooting to the top of their group after defeating Nigeria on Tuesday, though, Smith stressed that the same rules that apply to everyone else apply to the larger-than-life 57-year-old Argentinian manager and former football star.
“We would expect all players, former players, staff, fans, everyone to behave in a respectful manner.”
Argentina will face France today in their last match in the group stages.
Maradona became an internet sensation after his erratic behaviour at the Argentina vs Nigeria match in St Petersburg, which included the controversial hand signs as well as unveiling a poster of himself . He also appeared to fall asleep at one stage.
Some wondered if the legend had relapsed into his well-documented cocaine addiction, although if that is the case he probably would not have fallen asleep.
Loved and hated
Maradona is a controversial idol, worshipped as a god for his World Cup-winning exploits but whose life of excess has left a tormented public back home torn between veneration and derision.
The 57-year-old hit the headlines in Russia this week when he was filmed making two-handed middle-finger gestures to fans during Argentina’s narrow win over Nigeria in their final World Cup pool game.
How to take his attention-grabbing outbursts is a recurring theme back home in Argentina.
“He thinks that the love that Argentines lavish on him is so great that when he behaves badly we’ll look the other way,” said 55-year-old businessman Bruno Sollner.
Daniel Carballo, 56, agreed that Maradona “is not an example, at least not for me and most of my friends and my family, no.”
“There are things that are not acceptable, but well, he’s like that,” Carballo added.
Other South Americans tend to perceive Argentines as arrogant, and Maradona’s cockiness and public anguish seem to personify a nation’s suffering at its team’s stuttering performance in Russia.
“He is arrogant, he gets out of control because of arrogance,” said Sollner.
Maradona got adoration for his goals against England in the 1986 World Cup, both the cheat goal he scored with his hand — he called it the “Hand of God” – and another, when he danced past five English players to score what is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest goals of all time.
In Buenos Aires that day, he became a god. It was almost as if he had avenged with a football Argentina’s painful defeat in the Falklands War against Britain four years earlier.
Idol of a new generation
Irreverent, charismatic and provocative, Maradona remains an idol in Argentina, even for a generation too young to have seen him play, when his name became synonymous with footballing genius.
Paula Garcia Paz, a teacher, was six when Maradona lifted the World Cup in 1986.
“I’ll never forget it, that goal against England is something so memorable for Argentines,” she said.
Sollner said “we love him because he has stood up to the powerful, because on the pitch he never gave up, and you can see how much defeat hurts him.
“That devotion for a soccer fan is vital, it’s called sweating for the shirt,” he added.
The antics at the World Cup have been amusing and disturbing by turns, but for Argentines a distracting sideshow to the main event on the pitch.
Carried out of his seat in the VIP box after the match, he was forced to deny rumors he had been hospitalized, saying the next day that he was “very alive.”
“In Russia he’s caused a stir, he’s a guy who retired decades ago and who won things 30 years ago, but if he sneezes. we’re all on tenterhooks, waiting. That’s unique. That’s Maradona,” said Sollner.
More than Messi
There are inevitable comparisons between Maradona and Lionel Messi, but until the younger man wins a World Cup, Maradona remains a cut above for most Argentines.
“Messi is a phenomenon, but the world of football, until now, has not seen a player like Maradona,” his old teammate Claudia Caniggia said recently.
Another contemporary, Julio Olarticoechea, agreed: “Seeing him, not only in games, but in training, was something else. Diego was magic. That’s the word.”
“Messi still hasn’t managed to give us the happiness Diego did,” said Garcia Paz, the teacher.
“He thought he was a god and made many mistakes, but I know that the day he leaves this world, Argentina will be paralyzed.