Over the past few weeks every phonebooth and bill board has been sporting the face of a smiling Diego Maradona. Each time you switched on the television you found yourself watching glittery propanganda of the Argentine star dribbling a football in studio while surrounded by a crowd of bikini clad models. And this was all only the run-up to last night´s launch of Maradona´s very own television show aptly named La Noche de Diez.
I couldn´t believe my eyes when I first saw that Diego would be anchoring his own show. Afterall it was less than a year ago that the football hero was at heavens´s door, with his family keeping a long and agonising vigil at his bed side. His critical state at the time was brought on by prolonged substance abuse on a massive scale aswell as his highly obese weight of over 100 kilos. Watching the news reports from Spain I saw the entire nation in premature mourning as they gathered outside the hospital with banners painted with slogans such as "thankyou God for being from Argentina," while every car that passed on the neighbouring motorway hooted it´s horn in support for their failing hero. However in yet another twist to the Diego Epic, the man surprised all with a miraculous recovery in part helped by the stapling of over over half his stomach and a weight loss of over 40 kilos.
I quickly realised amongst Argentine friends in Madrid that no bad word about Maradona will ever be tolerated, not even in jest. For a long time I struggled to compehend this unconditional love that the people have for their football legend. I often asked myself were there no limits? What does it say about a society if their greatest hero is a renowned addict, womanizer and football cheat !! However in spite of such vices the popularity of Diego remained constant to the extent that becoming President seemed to not only depend on the support of United States Government but also public endorsement by Mr Maradona himself. Put simply, football in Argentina is THE religion of which Maradona THE God.
With the eagerly awaited program start Maradona entered the huge custom built studio singing a rendition of "The Hand of God", an excellent song which was a huge chart hit as much for the music as the football lyrics. Aside from the subject matter that particular song was chosen as it was written by a good friend of his who died tragically not so many years ago. It was a remarkeable sight as Diego revealed himself to the public looking strong, slim and agile. I was viewing these proceedings from the local Grill around the corner from my house which was in complete silence as the diners glued their attention to the screen. I even heard the owner scold those in the kitchen for making too much noise and saw the eyes of wrinkled faces well with tears as they witnessed that Argentina´s favourite son was once again back in their lives.
The guests on the night were former tennis great and fellow Argentine Gabriela Sabatina, Argentina´s top goal Scorer and team mate - Batistuta, Argentina´s most acclaimed actor - Ricardo Darin, World Cup 1986 Goalkeeper and current Argentine hearthrob - Sergio Goycochea, latino pop star Diego Torres and italian hell/actress/model - Maria Grazia Cuzinotti. The format was a round table chat and seemed much like they were all having a few drinks in Diego´s living room. He impressed me with his contol, spontaneous wit and of course his comfortable italian/spanish translations for the beautiful Cuzinotti who also danced a watlz with the beachball-like Maradona, whose face was only as high as her oversized and underclad bosom.The two hour show then continued with an enjoyable live connection with Naples where the young and old of the city sent their best wishes to their former player while back in studio guests related anecdotes such as that of a young sending an invitation to Diego for her father´s birthday party. The footballer duly turned up unannounced and alone and stayed in the family home until the early hours of the morning. Next Batistuta recalled how Maradona used to randomly stand-up in restaurants and sing happy birthday so that his table would be treated to champagne "on the house" for the entire night.
It was just when you thought that the show would wrap up that it did the very opposite by moving up a gear with the host bringing out his star guest of the night who was none other than the legend Pele. This was truly a moment to savour as the two greatest players in the history of soccer sat down face to face for a frank and sincere conversation. It was a surprise combination for many as both stars had previously fallen out and taken to exchanging insults through the media. Nonetheless peace was certainly made on the night in question with the man they call King singing samba on guitar while the man they call God responded with a Tango (about football). The royal guest questioned Diego about the alleged spiking of the Brazilian team water with sleeping pills prior the 1990 World Cup final. Naturally Maradona doubted that this was true given the superior performance of Brazil in the final as well as cheekily and ironically adding that he never needed help to win. Easily the most poignant moment of the night was when Pele spoke of his son, a professional goalkeeper, who is currently fighting addiction. He said Maradona´s example was an inspiration for his family and that he gave them hope. The pair then delighted the eyes of live viewers in Italy, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina with a game of "headers" which Pele eventually won. They then swapped signed shirts for each others family.
The show will be broadcast live each Monday night. Included in the weekly format is an analysis by the surprisingly articulate Maradona of one of his most famous goals. Next week will be the famous "hand of God" goal that he scored against the English!!A Buenos Aires suburb, surrounded by Argentines, a few "Quilmes" beers, Maradona on the box and a thunder storm pelting rain down on a pristine Peugeot 404 parked opposite....who am I to complain !!