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TELANDER: Modest Messi tries to match self-indulgent Maradona

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi controls ball during friendly football match LPlatstadium LPlatBuenos Aires ArgentinJune 7 2014 preparati2014 FIFA World Cup

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi controls the ball during a friendly football match at La Plata stadium in La Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina on June 7, 2014 in preparation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil to be held between June 12 and July 13. AFP PHOTO / Alejandro PAGNIALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: 493556277

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Updated: June 8, 2014 11:16PM



Diego Maradona is a piggish little punk.

It is 1990, in Milan, Italy, and I’m trying to talk to him through an interpreter. Will he allow me to ask him a couple of questions?

“Sure, sure,’’ he says after his Napoli team’s scoreless draw with AC Milan. ‘‘In Naples.’’

I know it will never happen.

There, back in Naples, near the southern tip of Italy, the superstar from Argentina’s 1986 World Cup championship misses practices with his pro team, gets written up in the scandal rags, finally shows up, ignores reporters and at last says to my interpreter, ‘‘No, there’s no time for an interview. You have to set it up way in advance. You have to talk to my secretary.’’

This was Barry Bonds before Bonds.

This, actually, was something never seen before or since — a petty, drug-taking, nearly criminal, filthy-rich athlete (who even cheated with a handball for one of those two famous goals against England) who was so beloved by his home country for the fame and pride he bestowed on it that nothing he did, said or snorted mattered to the legacy.

You can read plenty more about Maradona in research files. His rise from the slums of Buenos Aires to the peak of the global game is hard to believe, bad even as fiction. The retired 5-5 magician had ballooned to 266 pounds and suffered a pair of heart attacks from alleged cocaine overdosing, often with hookers, and previously had alleged ties to the vicious Naples-based Camorra mob, so his country responded before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa by naming him the coach of the national team.

You can read some good stuff about Maradona in a recent ESPN the Magazine article by Wright Thompson that is about quiet Argentine star Lionel Messi and his hope to burst through the ugly Maradona mythology.

But for me, when I was on my writing mission before the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Maradona’s singular moment came when he chartered an Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing 747 and flew several hundred friends from Rome to Buenos Aires for his gazillion-dollar wedding, riding to the event in a Rolls-Royce Phantom III said to have been owned by Joseph Goebbels.

The point here is that the World Cup is a big deal, and that personalities can rise out of it that shock the globe and become legendary in themselves, heroes — or goats.

Messi, 26, generally considered the best player in the world, is on the cusp of incredible possibilities. He could lead Argentina to another World Cup title, if his team has the mettle to overcome the odds-on favorite, host Brazil.

But politics, the state of one’s nation, the vacuum of leadership and inspiration that might or might not be there are all factors Messi cannot control. The United States knows little about this global phenomenon because we are coming late to soccer obsession, and we have never had a serious contender for the Cup.

But the soccer championship, which starts Thursday when Brazil plays Croatia, is the most riveting sports tournament on the planet. You don’t have to know a thing about the game, other than the ball needs to go into the net, to realize that the psyche and self-esteem of nation after nation depend on its team’s performance.

Players who screw up can get killed (see Andres Escobar, Colombia, 1994), and players who transcend can become icons.

You probably can’t name more than a player or two on our national team, and that’s OK. We have what we call American ‘‘football’’ to inspire us. But global ‘‘football’’ stars, that is, soccer stars, are known to everyone else on our planet.

Pelé is known. David Beckham is known.

And, yes, Maradona, the fat little slug, is known.

I’ll give you one more item about Maradona from when I was watching him practice with Napoli after he finally showed up. (He had a leg injury, he said, treated by his personal, unnamed, doctor.)

Staying late, he worked on kicks with 24-year-old teammate Gianfranco Zola. Maradona placed the ball slightly behind the end line, eight yards from the goal. With a blast of his left foot, he arced the ball around the post and up into the far corner of the net. It seemed impossible.

This is before ‘‘Bend It Like Beckham’’ was a movie, even a thought. Zola could not come close to making the shot.

The World Cup rocks. The World Cup is beautiful crazy.



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