It's not easy being the god of your nation's unofficial religion, and Argentina's soccer fans have become accustomed to the occasional meltdown by their appointed deity, Diego Maradona. Maradona's legendary feats as a player arguably the world's best, in his day earned him the "god" appellation years ago, but his performance as coach of Argentina's brilliant but struggling national team has shattered his aura.
Maradona, who turns 49 next week and is already a grandfather, is revered at home for leading Argentina to historic victories on the soccer field, particularly winning the 1986 World Cup. That was also the tournament in which he exacted a symbolic revenge for Argentina's defeat by Britain in the 1982 Falklands War by scoring two goals to sink England, the first illegally with a concealed fist that he wryly attributed to "the hand of God", and the second following a sublime run from the halfway line leaving the England defense for dead.
But having taken over the reins of Argentina's bid to reclaim the World Cup next year in South Africa, Maradona had produced a string of setbacks hard to swallow for the fans of a team that includes some of the world's most gifted players.
"He may be the greatest player of all time, but he obviously is a bad coach and people know it," says Jorge Lanata, an Argentine journalist and writer who has published a series of books on Argentine history.
Argentina may have long been the unquestioned top dogs of Latin American soccer along with Brazil, but it took a final-minute goal against lowly Uruguay last week to scrape through the qualifying tournament for next year's World Cup in South Africa. It was a moment of desperate relief after months of abysmal performances that had all of Argentina anxious that their team might miss its first World Cup since 1970, a devastating blow for national pride that not even the country's deep love for Maradona could have survived.
"The adoration they feel for him could easily have turned to hate at any moment," says Lanata.
Maradona's behavior as coach was widely perceived as erratic: He took off unannounced for a surprise visit to a weight-loss clinic in Italy between two matches, for example, and the fact that he used more than 70 different players in his squad over 13 matches (at a moment when most of his rivals in other countries are close to settling on the final 23 players they'll take to South Africa) had fans miffed and the press questioning his judgment in a manner unthinkable during his heyday.
Maradona's "divine" role was always bigger than the man himself. His dexterity on the ball was both the source and object of a kind of national ecstasy, but he is also a symbol of the contradictory dualities of Argentina reconciled in a way that strengthens a shaky sense of national unity: Maradona strides among the fissures of a nation divided between the haves and have-nots, between the descendants of its original indigenous population and those of European immigrants, and between Peronists and anti-Peronists. Born in a shanty town, he became extremely rich and famous at a very young age; he can claim both Italian and indigenous ancestry; and politically he has veered from hobnobbing with right-wing Peronists such as former Argentine President Carlos Menem in the 1990s to being an outspoken and unconditional supporter of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez today.
"Maradona is typically Argentine," says Lanata. "He has been both [a hobnobbing] snob and an anti-power advocate. He can stand on both sides of the fence at the same time."
The soccer icon certainly thrives on confrontation, especially with the press. Whether it is firing a compressed-air rifle at pesky journalists outside his home (he struck four and received a three-year suspended sentence a few years ago) or, as he did last week, hurling verbal abuse at them in a press conference after the meager victory against Uruguay. "You can suck it, keep on sucking it," a triumphant but spiteful Maradona spat out at journalists who had dared criticize his coaching skills.
But if that outburst seemed to those who know and love Maradona as just another instance of typical bravado, it could backfire badly. The barrage of insults he hurled at journalists was televised, prompting world soccer's governing body FIFA to open an inquiry that could result in him being suspended from coaching the team for up to five games potentially a death blow to Maradona's hopes of keeping his job for the World Cup.
Still, nobody would bet against Maradona once again bouncing back. He has survived protracted periods of self-destructive frenzy, through cocaine abuse and run-ins with the law. He has survived heart attacks brought on by substance abuse and over-eating, and he was sent home from the 1994 World Cup after failing a doping test. Argentines love him as both triumphant hero and luckless martyr.
And he has no regrets. "If Jesus stumbled, then why not I as well?" Maradona said after emerging from of his many drug rehab clinics a few years ago.
As for self criticism, he doesn't really need it. "Of course I criticize myself sometimes," he recently told the press. "But everything I have to say you've already said for me."