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MIKE DOWNEY

WORLD CUP USA '94 / THE FIRST ROUND : Bad Medicine for the Game

July 01, 1994|MIKE DOWNEY

All I really know is that if Diego Maradona had a cold, he should have taken two Alka-Seltzer tablets and a Jacuzzi.

But because the most famous soccer player in the world ingested something called ephedrine in whichever nasal sprays he dribbled and headed up his sinus passages, he has been expelled from the most famous soccer tournament in the world. An artist at Time magazine is probably working overtime even as we speak to darken the beard on Diego's face.

Maradona is done.

He knew he had to keep his nose clean, and he didn't.

The good people of Argentina have been stricken with Ephedrine Headache No. 1994. Maradona is homeward bound. He is on the red-eye to Buenos Aires. Buenas noches.

"He is a human being and he made a mistake," a sympathetic Bora Milutinovic, the U.S. coach, said Thursday.

Yes, but the Argentine soccer federation was not wrong to boot this soccer player from this tournament. A one-game suspension would have been insufficient for someone who should have known better than to disobey the clearly stated rules.

This might not be more cruel than whacking a graffiti artist with a cane, but Maradona is disgraced and Argentina is distressed, and why? Because Diego had a cold. Because Diego took some over-the-counter medicina. Because Diego didn't read the label.

Or, if he did, he didn't care. Diego knew the rules. Diego broke the rules.

And who suffers?

Soccer suffers.

World Cup XV was going along splendidly, with barely a ripple of disturbance. Some of Mexico's fans got into a clash with police. One player from Germany made an unfriendly gesture with his hands. But that was about it. The tournament was thriving, picking up speed. Maradona, the game's "marquee player," as we say here in Hollywood, was in sound condition, in top form and in good spirits, as evidenced by his devil-may-care, Pamplona-like run toward a TV camera after an opening-game goal.

It made many people happy to see Maradona that happy.

He was the star of the show. No active player in soccer has a name so familiar to even the know-nothings of the world. His presence gave the World Cup an added luster. And while I do not condone creating a double-standard for superstars who fail to follow the rules same as everybody else, may I please take a moment to say that these are some pretty strict rules.

Tab Ramos, the sensible young midfielder from the U.S. team who is originally from Uruguay, shook his head after Thursday's practice and said, "At this point, I'm with the player all the way. A lifetime ban, or whatever this amounts to, for an over-the-counter drug is much, much too harsh.

"This could happen to any of us."

Pointing to a can of an energy-restoring beverage by his side, Ramos said, "Look, somebody could come by right now and slip something into my drink and I'd never know. Or here's something else: I wear contacts. I put these eye drops in my eyes every day. But I didn't remember to ask the trainer if something in my drops might be illegal. They could test my eye drops if they wanted to. Ernie Stewart wears contacts too. Same thing.

"At this point we don't know if what Maradona did was intentional. Until we do, I feel I've got to stand by the player."

Well, evidently we do know. Whatever it was Maradona took for medicinal purposes, he apparently took a lot of it. Enough to cure five colds.

And there is another big difference.

He knew better.

This is no innocent lamb. Maradona once tested positive for cocaine. Another time he got busted for possession and distribution. His behavior has not been squeaky clean. More than any other player, he was someone who could take no unnecessary chances during this World Cup because his reputation was at stake and perhaps his legacy as well. Diego Armando Maradona is one of Argentina's greatest heroes. He is also that country's Ben Johnson.

He should have asked. He should have checked and double-checked. Maradona has been around. He has been to several World Cups. He knew how to ask which medications he could take. He could inquire in any language and someone would find him an interpreter. Someone would provide him with a chart of illegal stimulants. Diego had a cold? "Quiero aspirinas --I want aspirin." Diego's nose was clogged? "Quiero inhalante." All he had to do was ask. And never take anything unless you're sure, unless you are absolutely, positively, 100% sure.

And if you aren't sure?

Just say no.

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