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Soccer's Babe Ruth Takes a Bride


BUENOS AIRES — A one-time street urchin named Diego Maradona chartered a Boeing 747 for a couple of hundred friends and came home this week to strut his riches before an adoring nation and walk to the altar with the mother of his two children.

Maradona and his bride emerged exhausted at 8 a.m. Wednesday after an all-night wedding party for 1,100 guests in a run-down boxing stadium that was transformed for the event into a glittering reception hall, complete with caviar and glossy programs with color photos of the newly legitimized family.

The world's finest soccer player thus fulfilled a promise to Pope John Paul II by legalizing his union with childhood sweetheart Claudia Villafane. Their two daughters, at times overwhelmed by the crush of guests, well-wishers, groupies and photographers, were there to watch.

From Maradona's arrival in his homeland Monday through the civil and church services Tuesday to the all-night reception that followed, Argentina luxuriated in a spectacle of excesses. At a time of hunger and hardship, with bus and subway strikes paralyzing transport in the capital, nobody seemed to mind a bit of blow-out diversion.

That is especially true for this most-favorite-son whose famed left foot, now in the employ of Napoli in Italy, carves legends worthy of Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan. Maradona, with his diamond studded earing, attracts adulation more usual for a Michael Jackson.

The gossip magazine appeal of this confident, handsome, fireplug-shaped superstar recalls that of Evita Peron, another humbly born Argentine who also was prone to parade her finery and fame before an admiring populace.

Maradona, believed to earn about $2.2 million a year in a country where a bus driver battles to make $1,200, did not escape the controversy that has dogged him recently in Italy. He had arrived late for the first part of the Italian season, claiming that the Mafia was after him, missed matches, was fined $7,500 for insulting a referee and is accused of punching a 5-year-old Naples boy.

As the photographers pressed forward in a crush to shoot his arrival at the registry office here, he lashed out and landed a right on the nose of one, but inflicted no serious damage. With customary disorganization, police sought in vain to control the surging crowd of several hundred as the couple pleaded for respect for this "intimate ceremony."

Maradona Productions, which arranged the fiesta, did what it could to lend some order, issuing wedding press badges for the 140 or so reporters invited to a reception in the Sheraton Hotel, after the church service at the Most Blessed Sacrament Church on Tuesday night.

Maradona and Villafane relaxed a bit after the two wedding ceremonies. Chided for barring the press from the church and the gala party, Maradona responded with a smile, "I didn't come to your wedding. If you don't like it, don't come to mine."

The chartered plane for 209 friends cost $500,000, the newspapers insist, and the whole bash a cool million. Some suspected that the deal with Italian television for exclusive film rights will cover most of the costs.

Villafane wore an $8,000 white gown, with a glittering tiara and a train three yards long, covered with 20 pounds of semiprecious stones. She needed four attendants to help her move.

As usual in Argentina, some things went awry. Maradona was told he had to pay $14,000 in customs duties before he could clear gifts, food and drink brought on the flight, including a Ming vase, crystal glasses, 30 cases of French champagne and 30 cases of Italian wine.

But the 120 waiters hired for the party had plenty to serve. The cake alone was 8 1/2 feet tall and weighed 330 pounds. There was smoked salmon, lobster and crab to start, followed by boned chicken. Fifteen baby-sitters cared for children in an adjacent gymnasium while guests danced to rock bands before straggling back to the 110 rooms that Maradona had rented for them in the city's best hotels.

The guest list included former President Raul Alfonsin and his political foe, current President Carlos Menem, who played a passable charity match alongside Maradona a few months ago. But neither politician attended.

Maradona led Argentina to a spectacular World Cup victory in Mexico in 1986, scoring five goals including the "Hand of God" goal against England, when he clearly touched the ball with a hand, unseen by the referee. His stunning play allowed an otherwise mediocre team to prevail.

Not yet 30, he plays now with painkillers, and Italians grouse that he is off-form. But Argentines place their hopes in him as they approach the 1990 World Cup in Italy. And they wait impatiently for his return--after his Italian contract expires--to his former Argentine team, Boca Juniors, in the 1990s.

The international soccer body, FIFA, said after the 1986 World Cup that Maradona was "the perfect football professional . . . crowned with exemplary fairness."

The acerbic British soccer columnist Rob Hughes, complaining of Maradona's recent unruly performance on and off the field, said, "He might have benefited from discipline rather than sycophancy.

"It may be too much to hope that, at 29, he will return (to Italy) with a more controlled marriage of talent and reason."

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