Remorseful Maradona free to return

BUENOS AIRES - Assuming Diego Maradona curbs his tongue, FIFA's two-month ban announced on Sunday leaves the volatile Argentine coach free to return centre stage to next year's World Cup finals in South Africa.

It was a tournament he left in ignominy in 1994 after being sent home for a doping offence and it seems unlikely he would risk missing out again.

Maradona famously said at the time that his legs had been cut off, but FIFA's punishment this time round amounts to more of a heavy slap on the wrist rather than anything more drastic.

Having faced a touchline ban which could have sidelined him from part of next year's World Cup, he will instead miss two months of the year in which Argentine football takes its summer break.

A planned friendly against the Czech Republic next month, at a so-far unnamed venue, is the only match he is likely to have to sit out. The ban is largely symbolic.

FIFA's disciplinary committee were apparently impressed by what they described as the personal apologies and sincere remorse shown by Maradona who flew to the hearing in Switzerland from Madrid, where the previous night he had watched his team lose 2-1 to Spain.

The committee may also have been influenced by an Argentine FA report explaining that Maradona was acting "in a state of violent emotion over arguments with journalists" in the days before the World Cup qualifier.

Long accustomed to run-ins with reporters, such as the notorious occasion he fired an air pistol at a group of newshounds, Maradona had previously refused to apologise publicly for the outburst.

Aggrieved over criticism of his work in charge of the Argentina team, he felt vindicated by qualification even though his team lost at home to Brazil and away to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay on the way.

But it was made clear on Sunday that a repetition of his verbal tirades would lead to heavier sanctions. POOR FAMILY

Maradona, 49, has fought adversity from the day he was born into a poor family in a shanty-town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

At the height of his club career, at Napoli, he became a symbol for Italy's poor in the south against the might of the rich industrial north centred in Milan and Turin.

Maradona has thrived in situations of conflict and as a player often made the them-and-us syndrome work in his favour, not least when he led Argentina to their second World Cup victory in Mexico in 1986.

The Argentine FA will have to look at how the team are coached during the next two months and in his absence there will doubtless be cries for his head.

Even the more objective media, who differ from his view that Argentina played reasonably well against Spain, will continue to criticise his team's performances as long as they are as listless as that in Madrid on Saturday.

But his supporters believe history will repeat itself and that, as in 1986 when Maradona was captain, a struggling team will come good during the World Cup and lift the trophy.

Even the new shirt design Argentina wore for the first time in Madrid resembles the 1986 version.

But more importantly, Maradona will be under even closer scrutiny when the ban ends.

He is a man who reacts spontaneously, rarely thinking things through to measure what might be the effect his actions or remarks, as was the case at Montevideo's Centenario stadium.

In that same news conference which prompted Sunday's hearing Maradona said, tellingly: "I am black or white, there is no grey in my life."


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