It was early morning, and unshaven Diego Maradona had just finished therapy on his left knee. He smiled at several reporters who had gathered to speak to him. Almost immediately, he was asked about the condition of his leg, which all of Argentina is depending on for a World Cup title.

"My left leg is fine," he said. He then paused, showing a knack for comic timing that Henny Youngman would appreciate, and completed his thought: "It only hurts when someone kicks it."

Unfortunately for Maradona, someone kicks it often. He is a marked man in Mexico, and although he has scored only one goal for Argentina in four matches, he undoubtedly has had the greatest impact of any player at this 13th World Cup.

If Maradona's leg and Argentina's luck hold out for three more matches, he -- like Brazil's Pele, Holland's Johan Cruyff and West Germany's Franz Beckenbauer -- soon may be regarded as one of the great soccer players of all time.

"I am concerned for the team and not for how others view me," Maradona said. "If I only thought of how others view me -- the Argentine press and some of the fans -- then I probably would never sleep. I think our chance of winning the World Cup is excellent, as good as anyone in the world."

Argentina would be an ordinary team without Maradona, and that's why the condition of his leg is so important. His left leg was broken once and, despite ligament damage in his left knee, he has chosen not to have surgery. Thirteen months ago, after Argentina played a World Cup qualifying match in San Cristobal, Venezuela, Maradona even had his knee kicked by a fan as the team left the field.

"Doctors may know more than me, but I'm not sure," Maradona said, smiling again. "All I know is that, if I listen to them, surgery probably would have kept me out of Mexico this year. I wanted to play here too badly."

Maradona's desire to play in this World Cup stems mostly from his disappointing performance at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. And so he takes the physical abuse and limps noticeably at times, but he runs the field with a creative eye and imaginative skills unmatched in the sport.

"Maradona is, at all times, an artist," said Argentina Coach Carlos Bilardo, who named Maradona the team's captain. "He is a player with skills like few others. He is a team player, which surprises many people. He makes the sacrifices and, without a doubt, he has matured tremendously in the last several years."

Maradona, 25, is 5 feet 5 and 152 pounds. He has a shock of jet-black hair, thick eyebrows and massive, powerful thighs. He is a compact, handsome man. He wears an earring in his left ear, sometimes gold, sometimes diamond, and that is perhaps the most visible sign of his reported multimillion-dollar-a-year income.

But what draws the most attention is his soccer ability. Maradona, a midfielder, can score from improbable angles and create opportunities for teammates from unlikely situations. He is deceptively strong, making it difficult for defenders to take the ball away, and his tremendous acceleration makes him always dangerous whenever he crosses midfield.

"I think France's Michel Platini may be a better overall team player," said Paraguay's Julio Cesar Romero, a good friend of Maradona, "but Maradona has better technique and greater individual skills and, at his best, he also is a wonderful team player."

Maradona often is too good for his teammates. Time and time again at this World Cup, he has sent eye-catching passes into the goal area, but his teammates have failed to convert them. He also seems frustrated at times when his teammates are unable to get him the ball in good position.

Ever since he was a small boy, Maradona has been a step ahead of his larger competitors.

At 13, he was spotted by one of Argentina's top club teams, Argentinos Juniors. He made his league debut with the team 10 days shy of his 16th birthday, in 1976. Four months later, he made his international debut as a reserve against Hungary.

In 1978, Maradona was stunned when Coach Cesar Luis Menotti cut him from Argentina's World Cup squad. Argentina won the Cup title at home. Maradona overcame the initial outrage and later said, "The manager was right. I was too young 17 and inexperienced to cope with the pressures of the World Cup."

He led Argentina's national junior team to the world title in 1979, then, after Boca Juniors obtained him from Argentinos Juniors, he led Boca to the national club title.

It seemed clear that Maradona would climb onto the world stage in 1982 at age 21 and lead Argentina to a second straight Cup triumph.

But in that '82 Cup, Maradona went from magical to miserable. He was marked tightly and victimized by rough play. He was visibly irritated and tried to retaliate often. In Argentina's final match of the tournament -- a 3-1 loss to Brazil -- Maradona left ingloriously, ejected after kicking a defender in the stomach.

"I am more mature now," Maradona said. "I have learned to walk away when it is necessary."

In 1982, Barcelona of the Spanish League paid a world-record $10 million transfer fee, divided between Boca Juniors and Argentinos Juniors, for Maradona. He played well for Barcelona for two years, but again his health was a problem.

He told World Soccer magazine that his biggest mistake was "playing far too many games when I wasn't fit. You let down too many people. I'm not proud of this, but it's worth telling: in the spring of 1984, we played Manchester United in the quarterfinals of the European Cup Winners' Cup . I had to have nine painkilling injections. Nine! I could hardly lift my leg and so I was whistled and jeered off the field and we lost. I learned my lesson in those games."

From Barcelona, he went to Napoli of the Italian League, where he has excelled the past two seasons. He prepared to redeem himself at the '86 World Cup.

Still, he ran into criticism a few months before coming here. His game was ragged in some preparatory matches, and the dark, devilish-looking beard he had grown added to the negative image. The Argentine press and fans started to expect the worst from him and the team.

"I am tired of reading in the Argentine press that Bilardo has us in straitjackets and that we cannot create offensively under him," Maradona said. "That is stupid and inaccurate.

"When we left, many of our fans said, 'This team has no chance.' But four years ago, they thought we were the best. What can you make of expectations? If I looked bad on the field three months ago, then I did. But that has nothing to do with us here."

Nowadays, Maradona exudes confidence. He celebrates teammates' goals by bending slightly at the knees and shaking his fist repeatedly toward the Argentine bench. He acknowledges the endless stream of teen-age girls who follow the TV cameras.

"Maradona is expected to give autographs all day long," Bilardo said. "It's that way everywhere. Maybe he should get someone who looks like him to take care of those matters. They are so demanding."

While he reluctantly accepts the attention, he makes no apologies about accepting the money. "I am not going to say that money does not interest me," he said. "Money brings me tranquility and, in this day, it is the most important thing to have."

He was asked how he would feel if the Argentine team ignores him for the 1990 Cup, as was the case this year with Italy's 1982 hero, Paolo Rossi. Rossi is 29; Maradona will be 29 at the 1990 Cup.

He smiled one more time. "Fame comes and fame goes, but at least I know the money, it stays with me."