When Boca plays at home there is no movement down the old stone streets and badly lit cantinas of southeast Buenos Aires. In the gathering chill of a Sunday in June, dead of winter on the southern end of the world, the only visible human is an old man in an overcoat with a transitor radio pressed against his ear. It is as though the whole neighborhood -- children, grocers, policemen, alley cats -- has been sucked into the concrete risers that surround the hallowed green oval of the cancha de Boca, the soccer field.
From a half-mile away you can hear the roar, the thumping, the bellowing bass chorus of 60,000 sweatered Argentine men all jumping and singing impassioned insults across the stadium at each other. They sing taunts about impending carnage on the field. They sing back and forth, louder and louder and wilder with each chorus, and there is one name they keep singing, one name that runs through almost all their songs: "Maradoooona!"
This is how Diego Maradona begins a soccer game show, prancing onto the grass in a cloud of white confetti while the photographers and television cameramen move in for his warmup. In the trotting lineup of the Boca Juniors soccer team he is the small, solid, darkskinned forward with a black mass of curls that bounce as he sprints, elbows high, weaving around the photographers. He runs backward, runs sideways, ducks and dives like a shadow boxer. He flicks the ball off his toe, off his knees, off his heels. He springs straight in the air and the cry is now one syllable, the last of the confetti still floating toward the grass: "Doooon!"
Not yet 21, the star forward of Argentina's leading soccer team is one of the most celebrated soccer players in the world -- a compact blend of speed, agility, and balance who seems to be driven by an uncanny instinct as to precisely what it will take to drive the ball around the opposition for a goal.
A London writer once compared him to a cross between Fred Astaire and an armored ship. Vacques Ferran, editor of the French sports magazine "L'Equipe," is reported to have called Maradona "the only player capable of reversing the international decline of soccer." His public life and business matters have become so complicated that they are administered from a full-time downtown office.
In the course of a professional soccer career that began at an age when most boys are barely shaking off puberty, Maradona has been called Golden Kid, the Super Kid, the Goal Kid, the Marvel Kid, the Little Prince and the Messiah of the Paternal. The Paternal is the neighborhood where he played after a talent coach spotted the 9-year-old Diego Maradona kicking and juggling and worrying a soccer ball with a mastery unexpected in a boy so young. Maradona had one pair of sports shoes then -- he is now said to own 40 -- and legend has it that in the beaten-down neighborhood where he grew up, his scoring was done through goalposts made of two tin cans.
He has also been called, inevitably, the White Pele. The national soccer team coach once pleaded publicly that the young Maradona he accepted on his own terms -- "Don't say now that his is already Pele and next month say he is a disaster. He is a boy who has to get through the stages like any other human being of this age." But the rivalry between Argentina and Brazil is feroscious, emcompassing sports, nuclear development and continental prominence, and by Maradona's 18th birthday it was obvious to most Argentinas that this graceful and intuitive young forward was potentially the best player the country had produced. There was no way to stop them from saying it: the incomparable Pele, the greatest player in the history of soccer, was maybe not so incomparable. Diego Maradona was preparing to take his place.
"I never had very many toys," Maradona says in his soft, Italian-accented Argentine Spanish."If they gave me a choice between a car and a ball, I stayed with the ball. They could ask me to choose between a train and a ball -- I would stay with the ball. I didn't understand what it meant to play with toys besides the ball. I'd finish eating dinner at night, and I'd start kicking it against the wall. I loved it."
It is dark outside and Maradona is poised on the edge of an armchair in the living room of his quinta house. About the closest English translation you can get for quinta is "country place, a second home outside the city," but that is a little like referring to your spread in Potomac as a country place. Around Buenos Aires, a quinta is a substantial house surrounded by green grass, well-bred dogs and better-bred neighbors. Maradona's has a swimming pool, a soccer field, a lighted clay tennis court, a huge outdoor wood grill and a seperate house where the guests can change into their swimming suits.
His other house, which he shares with his parents and five of his seven brothers and sisters, is in Buenos Aires. When he moved in, half the city's television press corps showed up. They pressed in with their questions. What color did he plan to paint the maid's room? What did he think of his neighbors?
"The game went on being just the ball, and playing to have fun," Maradona says. "They can pay me millions of dollars, the coaches can try to fill me with their technique, but I always went on playing soccer. Nothing changed. The money didn't change me either. Because with the money I did the things I felt I had to do, no? I wanted to give a better life to my family, whom I love -- give everything to them, whatever they need. Everybody said I must have changed. No."
Nobody has asked him if he has changed.
Nobody asked him about the money.
He is bundled into a Diego Maradona signature track suit, trying to keep warm in a house that appears to have no heat, empty bookshelves, bare kitchen cupboards and a spotless refrigerator standing open and unused. It is explaned that the house is not used much in the winter, but that Maradona was relaxing there for the day. He looks tired, cold and very young, and he launches as if one cue into the topic that has become something of an obsession for Argentine soccer fans: Maradona and money.
Mardollars, they call them here.
A year ago, when Maradona was playing for the professional team called Argentina Juniors, the Spanish soccer team in Barcelona caused a minor frenzy by offering Argentina Juniors a reported $6 million for Maradona. He was 19 at the time.
In some circles, the Barcelona offer bordered on a direct assault on Argentina's natural resources, and a lot of frantic wheeling and dealing ensued. There was a whole series of cliffhangers -- Maradona sold! Exclusive look at the precontract! Offer rejected! And a finale that for Buenos Aires papers eclipsed every major news story in the world: the winning bid finally came from the old Italian neighborhood of Boca, where the fans are working-class men of such ardent loyalty that a fence and a full moat sometimes fail to keep them from leaping onto the field after a game.
According to the apparently accurate reports of the deal, Boca Juniors agreed to pay Argentine Juniors a sum that totaled about 10 million U.S. dollars. Maradona himself was reportedly paid an additional signing fee of $600,000, another $500,000 four months later and $60,000 per month, plus various per-game bonsuses.
It was a stunning amount of money by anybody's standards and Boca had never been a wealthy club. It was said the team would never to able to pay it -- and that was before the Argentine peso was devalued a number of times.
What this has done for Maradona is rather more complicated than simply making him rich. It has made people a little bitter about him. A taxi driver, bumping over railroad tracks on the way out to the Boca Stadium, snorts at the mention of Maradona and says, "For $10 million could play like he does. This guy goes out and plays decently and they say he's tremendous . . . The problem is that it's been a long time since Argentina had a great player, and the country needed an idol."