The Biggest Little Athlete Alive, Soccer Superman Diego Maradona, Goes Gunning for Another World Cup

updated 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sunlight slants off the bright green grass of a playing field outside Rome as the man who is the world's greatest soccer player, and knows it, kicks off his cleats for some stretching. Suddenly aware of a camera, the stocky Argentine begins to clown, doing headstands, then trying to rise to his feet from a supine position while balancing a soccer ball on his head. After three unsuccessful attempts, someone comments that he'll never have a future in the circus. "Well," says Maradona, smiling, "there's always soccer."

There is indeed. At 29, Diego Armando Maradona is hailed by some experts as perhaps the most brilliant player in the sport's history and its highest-paid performer: with endorsements, he rakes in upwards of $11 million a year. Yet even as Maradona and his Argentine teammates get set to defend their World Cup title in Italy, the Golden Kid, as the fans back home call him, says this maybe his last appearance on a world stage. The next World Cup, to be held in the U.S., will be in 1994. "Depending on how I feel physically, this will be my last mundial," Maradona says. "I'll be too old to face a difficult championship as the one in America will surely be."

If Maradona retires, fans will lose not simply a great athlete but one of soccer's most vivid, controversial figures. It was, after all, the iron-thighed midfielder who in 1986 in Mexico City capped an already dazzling career when he scored a remarkable five goals in seven games to lead Argentina to its second World Cup title. Since then, his lightning-quick, low-to-the-ground skills have also guided Naples, his current club team, to two Italian league championships and a coveted European title. However, after 14 years as a pro, Maradona often tangles with the media, whose gibes he dismisses as the handiwork of "liars, hypocrites and jealous persons," and rarely grants interviews. (Though depicted as spoiled, aloof and rude, he graciously consented to an exclusive session with PEOPLE).

Last year journalists admonished him forgetting fat, playing sluggishly, skipping practices and flying to games in private planes. Gossip sheets also shrieked when in mid-season he chartered a Boeing 747 to fly several hundred pals from Rome to Buenos Aires to attend his gaudy million-dollar wedding to Claudia Villafañe, 28, his longtime housemate and mother of their daughters, Dalma, 4, and Giannina, 1. "He goes to rock concerts, he drinks, he is not living like an athlete," sniffs Giuseppe Pacileo, a writer for Naples's Il Mattino newspaper. In March the World Cup governing body also accused Maradona of committing "a very grave offense" by publicly saying the cup draw was rigged to put Argentina in the toughest grouping and Italy in the easiest. Threatened with suspension, Maradona apologized but refused to recant. "Everyone knows the draws are fixed," says Italian TV host Gianni Mina, "but Diego is the only one who has the courage to say so."

"I have made enemies, but it doesn't matter," says the cocky star, whose 5'5", 150-lb. figure looks match-fit since he lost 13 lbs. on a recent diet. "They can say what they want about me. Fine me, with-hold my salary, but I won't change. Remember, it's the players who bring 90,000 people to the stadium. I am Maradona, who makes goals, who makes mistakes. I can take it all, I have shoulders big enough to fight with everybody."

Maradona's love affair with soccer began in the Buenos Aires shantytown of Villa Fiorito, where he was the fifth of eight children. According to family lore, at 3 he was given a soccer ball by his father, a factory worker. The boy slept with it at night and soon was kicking it all day. He became a star with the Little Onions, a local youth team that won 140 straight matches, and by the age of 10 he was captivating TV variety-show audiences and halftime crowds at pro games by juggling a ball with his feet, knees, head, shoulders and chest, as if it were attached to his body by an invisible tether. He quit school at 14 to play soccer and a year later joined a junior division team whose trainer, Francisco Cornejo, became his mentor. "He wouldn't stop bouncing the ball," says a witness of Diego's first day with Cornejo. "He was already a phenomenon—born that way." Recalls another early fan: "People who weren't even interested in soccer came to see him as a spectacle, as a show, like going to an opera."

Two years later, Maradona led Argentina to a world junior championship, but the next year, because of his inexperience in international competition, he was left off the team that eventually won the 1978 World Cup. In 1982, at 21, he was expected to lead his country to a second cup title but was constantly fouled, frustrated and finally ejected from the second-round game in which his team was eliminated. Later that year, like so many players who are lured to Europe for bigger contracts, he joined Barcelona in the Spanish league for a sour two years during which he was plagued by hepatitis. Viewed as a dark, uncouth outsider, Maradona came to feel unwelcome in Spain.

In 1984, after signing the first of two contracts with Naples—totaling $26 million over nine years—Maradona transformed his new team into the powerhouse that most recently won this year's Italian league title. His presence has also helped the local economy, notably the unofficial betting system that profits everyone from sellers to bettors. "Maradona has meant $20 billion for the club," says general manager Antonio Juliano. "When Napoli bought Maradona, people said the price was too high. But he has been worth it."

At the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico City, Maradona finally emerged as king of the game. Wearing No. 10, the same number the Brazilian superstar Pelé once wore, the tournament's most valuable player led Argentina to a 3-2 win in the final over West Germany, after punching in a hotly disputed goal with his forearm—a soccer no-no—that referees did not see.

Insisting his ability is God-given, Maradona says, "I've always been able to dominate, to do anything I want with the ball." Spain's respected coach Helenio Herrera explains: "He has an instant, spontaneous vision of the entire game, which permits him to put the ball exactly where he wants it. He's capable of inventing shots that have never been seen before."

Whether or not Maradona and his countrymen triumph in this year's World Cup, he is already musing about the future. Though he owns a Mediterranean seaside villa, apartments in Naples and Buenos Aires, a 42-foot cabin cruiser and a fleet of nine cars, he insists his needs are simple. "My dream," he says, referring to past trips to the U.S., "is to live in the United States—for security, for the future of my children. It's something Argentina today does not give me. Maybe Claudia and I will buy a house in Orlando. Then I'll have absolute freedom. I can stand in a long line at Disney World, and nobody will recognize me, bother me. We'll be normal people. I'll conduct clinics for children because they don't know about power, about envy, about meanness."

Then, with childlike eagerness, Maradona starts juggling a ball. "This makes me happy," the Golden Kid says. "To see the ball, to run after it, makes me the happiest man in the world."

—Ron Arias, Logan Bentley in Rome

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