Argentina fans who doubted Diego Maradona: 'Please forgive us!'

After leading Argentina to the 1986 World Cup championship with his notorious 'hand of god,' Diego Maradona fell from grace among countrymen. He's now proving himself again as a soccer icon.

Ricardo Mazalan/AP Photo
Argentina's soccer team coach Diego Maradona attends a press conference in Cape Town, South Africa, Friday. Argentina will play against Germany in a World Cup quarterfinal match on July 3.

Going into the World Cup, only a few deeply committed fans had faith that super-star-player-turned-coach Diego Maradona could lead Argentina to their third title.

But after four convincing victories, including an easy 3-1 win over Mexico on Sunday in the first elimination round, Argentina looks like the Cup favorite. Heathens here in Argentina have become believers, blasphemes have repented, and Maradona (so far) has proved his worth in this country where futbol is religion.

“I didn’t have faith in him, I didn’t think he was ready to be a coach,” says Dario Schvarzstein, a filmmaker from Buenos Aires.

Mr. Schvarstein’s doubt was understandable. During World Cup qualifiers, Argentina failed to live up to expectations, barely squeaking through the South America group by winning the last automatic slot. Maradona seemed unable to inspire Argentina’s star player, Lionel Messi. He had trouble putting a team together.

In an unofficial poll last October on the website of the country’s largest daily, Clarin, 86 percent of 14,000 voters believed that Maradona could not help his team improve.

But the turbulent pre-Cup period now seems like simply a test of true believers.

"Have I repented?” asks Lucas Vargas, a policeman who says he didn’t trust Maradona before the cup. “Obviously!” Mr. Vargas has watched the games at a cafe on his beat, saying that the streets are empty during the matches, leaving him little else to do but watch.

Maradona's mixed past

Maradona has had a mixed record on and off the pitch. His was the so-called “hand-of-god” in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals when, as a player, he tapped the ball with his hand on a drive through the English defense to score Argentina’s first goal of the game. Maradona scored again three minutes later in an equally fantastic play and the Argentines advanced with a 2-1 victory. They went on to win the 1986 title, the second and last time the team won the Cup.

But he has also been dogged by personal and professional problems, including being ejected from the 1994 World Cup for doping. Yet Maradona now seems to have shed his bad-boy image, cultivating instead a persona of the experienced, fatherly coach.

Maradona wears a tracksuit at practices and kicks the ball around with his players. When subs come off the field, Maradona gives them long hugs and kisses, as if he’s the 12th man on the field. He sports a gray suit and silver tie – and clutches a rosary in his "hand of god" – at the games (though he immediately changes out of his professional attire for post-game press conferences).

Futbol intuition

Many say it is Diego’s almost magical intuition about the game that has propelled the team forward.

Miguel Gallardo, a doorman in the upscale Recoletta neighborhood, says that the pre-Cup troubles were nothing more than Maradona’s grand strategy not to reveal the team’s playing style. “He had it in his head all along," he argues. "A lot of people are going to have to ask for forgiveness.”

“I think in Maradona’s case, it’s a spiritual sort of mystical thing that has made it possible for him to get to the point where he is now,” says Schvarzstein. “You never know what is important in these battles — the passion for the game, to make the people who are with you believe that they can do it.”

One of Maradona’s more popular moves this World Cup made little practical difference. In their final first round match against Greece, when Argentina had already secured a second round birth, Maradona substituted in Martin Palermo, the aging star striker from Boca Juniors, in the final minutes. Palermo had never before played in the World Cup. In the 89th minute, Palermo scored an insurance goal, securing Argentina’s 2-0 victory.

Argentina faces Germany on Saturday in the quarterfinals, a replay of the 1986 and 1990 World Cup finals. It will be Argentina’s most difficult game of the tournament so far. But faith that Argentina can win is growing.

IN PICTURES: Top 12 Goals of the Second Week and Top 10 Goals of the First Week

World Cup 101:

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