Diego Maradona moves from one political pitch to another

Argentine football hero Diego Maradona made a significant move from one pitch to another last week. As his popular television show was coming to an end - at least for this season - he was raising his profile in the political arena. Just last year, a bloated Maradona disappeared not only from the limelight but nearly from life, as he battled against drug addiction.

But a few months ago, he returned very much alive, slimmer and more intelligible. This remarkable turnaround began in 2004, when he went to a rehabilitation clinic in Cuba. A stomach-stapling operation in Colombia earlier this year put the final touches to his renewed image. Now he seems to be everywhere, moving from one arena to the other as he seeks to remain in the public eye.

Maradona's comeback was marked in August by the first programme of his show called "La Noche del Diez" ("The Night of the Number Ten") in reference to the number 10 shirt he wore for the Argentine national side.

The show - part tribute to himself, part entertainment - discussed every subject from football to family. And politics too. The first programme was sport-oriented, with Brazilian football legend Pele as guest of honour.

The last instalment this week was more political. Although former boxer Mike Tyson was a guest, the centre piece of the show was the second part of an interview with Cuban President Fidel Castro - one of Maradona's heroes. Ratings for the final "The Night of the Number Ten" were lower than at the season's start. But Maradona had already stepped into a more crowded stadium.

During the weekend, the "Number Ten" became one of the most vocal opponents of free trade at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina. When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez spoke before 40,000 anti-globalisation and anti-Bush demonstrators at a stadium, Maradona was at his side. The former football star angered the Mexican President, Vicente Fox, who criticised him for having "a head full of smoke and ideology".

He has a good foot for kicking, but he does not have a good brain for talking," Mr Fox added. In the end, Maradona became a conversation issue for the presidents attending the summit. He was again in the limelight. The "Number Ten's" political appeal is not new in Argentina, although it now seems to be stronger than ever.

For many in the South American country, Diego Maradona has not only been a god on the pitch. As he retired from football and battled against his cocaine addiction, he also became a saint for his fallen country.

Once a rich nation, Argentina collapsed in 2001 and poverty soared. Maradona spoke for the poor and the oppressed, and some considered him a protector against oppressive political and economic interests. The man who rose from the slums of Buenos Aires to find fame on the football pitch attacked neo-liberalism and corrupt politicians, reports BBC news. I.L.

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