BUENOS AIRES, APRIL 26 -- Diego Maradona, suspended from soccer three weeks ago for failing a drug test, was arrested this evening by federal police agents in his home town and charged with possession and use of cocaine.

The arrest could complete the sudden fall of a soccer player once revered by millions throughout the world and considered, simply, the best. Maradona, 30, was in tears tonight as police agents brought him to the headquarters of the narcotics bureau, where he was to be tested for cocaine.

Maradona, who has consistently denied having a drug problem, was arrested along with two other men in an apartment in a working-class section of the city. A spokesman for Maradona said the man who lived in the apartment was one of the soccer star's childhood friends.

Police put the apartment under surveillance this afternoon and waited about two hours before moving in. It was not known whether the arrest is part of an ongoing investigation or the result of a tip. When police did enter the apartment, they found the three men allegedly in a state of apparent intoxication and observed a packet being thrown out the window.

The packet, shown in local television reports, appeared to contain as much as several ounces of a white powder that police identified as cocaine, pending the results of laboratory tests.

The police kept the three men inside the apartment while they conducted a lengthy search. But word seeped out, and by the time they were ready to move Maradona and the others to the police station, a large crowd of reporters and onlookers had gathered.

The rush to take Maradona to a waiting police car was a tumultuous scene, a kind of nightmarish reflection of the fanatical adoration he has received at so many athletic triumphs. He tried gamely to hold a smile as he emerged from the building, but faltered and finally broke. By the time the car arrived at the police station for another mad dash to safety, Maradona was crying.

There would be none of the peace that Maradona had said he was coming home to seek.

Just three weeks ago, on April 2, Maradona was suspended for 15 months by officials of the Italian League for having tested positive for cocaine.

The suspension came in the wake of numerous fines levied by Maradona's team, Naples, for offenses such as missing practices and games. The fans and the Italian media were riding him hard, and his performance on the field had suffered greatly.

He gained international fame in 1986 when almost single-handedly he brought Argentina the World Cup, soccer's greatest prize, and he helped lead Argentina to a surprising berth in the 1990 Cup final.

It was unclear tonight whether Maradona would be released on bail or be forced to remain in custody for the weekend. Crowds lingered well into the night both at the police station and at the apartment building where he was arrested. Some fans were in tears.

"I'm still trying to find out what's going on," said Marcos Franchi, a friend who has served as Maradona's spokesman. "I don't know what stage Diego's life is in right now. Everything has changed so much."