Where Gallardo Goes, Expectations Follow

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Marcelo Gallardo, D.C. United's Argentine playmaker, recounted the conversation as if it had taken place last week, not nearly 13 years ago.

"I was not feeling good about myself," Gallardo said through an interpreter recently. "The phone rang. I asked who was calling."

"It's Diego," the voice declared.

"Diego who?" Gallardo asked.

"Diego Diego!" the caller insisted.

"Diego what?" Gallardo responded, growing irritated and preparing to hang up.

"Diego Maradona!"

"Oh, oh . . . Diego," Gallardo said in the tone of a private who had just inadvertently insulted the general.

"Then," he added, "I showed my respect."

Maradona was the keg-shaped superstar of world soccer nearing the end of a career that had transformed him into one of the most celebrated figures in Argentina's history, sports or otherwise. Gallardo was a brash 19-year-old midfielder, the son of a handyman from Merlo on the western edge of greater Buenos Aires, who, like every boy in the country, idolized Maradona.

When he was 10, Gallardo was at his club coach's house, watching the 1986 World Cup on TV and listening to famed announcer José Maria Muñoz's radio call when Maradona embarked on a 60-yard run to beat England. "I ran out of the house and must have run 50 meters back and forth celebrating," Gallardo said. "I had tears coming down my face."

So here he was nine years later, just like his hero, wearing the sacred No. 10 sky-blue jersey for the Albiceleste, the national team. The occasion was a friendly in Buenos Aires against Australia, a tuneup for the prestigious Copa America tournament. Argentina won, 2-0, but in the eyes of a soccer-nutty nation, Gallardo's decision to grab the ball, wave off seasoned teammates Gabriel Batistuta and Abel Balbo and take a penalty kick was brazen. When he missed, derisive whistles blanketed the stadium.

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