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Maradona keeps finding himself in taxing situations

September 20, 2009|GRAHAME L. JONES

We open today with the tale of a fat man, two diamond earrings and a long-running feud.

The principal character in this story is well known and goes by the name of Diego Armando Maradona.

He was once a player of some note, but is rapidly proving yet again that a great player does not necessarily make a great coach. His girth may increase but not his reputation.

When last seen on a soccer field, Maradona, now in charge of Argentina's floundering national team, was in Asuncion, Paraguay, trying to explain away a 1-0 World Cup qualifying loss to Paraguay that left Argentina in danger of not making it to the big shindig in South Africa in 2010.

"Edge of the abyss," is how the country's top newspaper, Clarin, phrased it.

So how did Maradona, who earns a reported $100,000 a month as national coach, respond? By hopping on a flight to Italy and thus avoiding a showdown with a very unhappy Julio Grondona, president of the Argentine soccer federation and a FIFA vice president to boot.

Turns out it was a bad choice of destination for the pudgy one, who checked in at a weight-loss clinic in the northern Italian spa town of Merano to lose a bit of flab and instead ended up losing his earrings.

Italian tax authorities, it seems, are relentless. Ever since Maradona, 48, stopped playing for Napoli 18 years ago and left Italy while owing a reported $54 million, the tax police have been on his tail.

They showed up at the Grand Hotel Palace in Merano and relieved him of the earrings, which were said to be worth $5,900.

That cuts the alleged tax debt to $53,994,100, but the Italians apparently are willing to take it on an installment plan.

When Maradona visited Naples a few years ago, the tax folk lightened his luggage to the tune of a couple of fancy wristwatches.

A watch here, an earring there, it all adds up.

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Big nose has his say

On Sept. 30 in Cordoba, Argentina has a home game against Ghana, which already has qualified for the World Cup. That match is intended to prepare Maradona's team for its vital final two qualifiers, at home against Peru on Oct. 10 and away to Uruguay three days later.

That's assuming Maradona is still calling the shots by then.

In an interview not long ago, Maradona claimed that he did absolutely nothing without first checking with Carlos Bilardo, who coached Argentina to its 1986 World Cup victory, with a hand, of course, from Maradona.

Bilardo, who glories in the nickname of "Narigon" or "Big Nose," says that Maradona should not be replaced. He couched his opinion in biblical terms in one of the most over-the-top quotes of the year.

"If Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary come, then it is acceptable, otherwise it isn't," Bilardo said.

So now you know.

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Another fine mess

To have Argentina not qualify for the World Cup is unthinkable.

That's the opinion not only of Argentine fans but of two of soccer's top players -- Spain and Liverpool striker Fernando Torres and Brazil and Real Madrid playmaker Kaka.

Both have said that a tournament without the presence of such illuminating players as Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano, Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez and Javier Zanetti would not be the same.

They are correct, and it is likely that FIFA sees things the same way. Keep a close eye, in other words, on the officiating in the upcoming Peru and Uruguay games. Meanwhile, Messi on Friday assured himself a rosy future, World Cup or no World Cup. The 22-year-old Barcelona star signed a new contract that will keep him with the team he joined at 13 until at least 2016.

The deal will earn him $15.4 million per year after taxes, according to the Spanish media, and contains a buyout clause worth a stupendous $368 million.

"I'd like to finish my career here at Barcelona," Messi said. "I feel like I am playing in a formidable squad with a strong, unified team."

Not the least bit like Argentina, in other words.

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Two for the future

Sticking with the Argentina theme, the folks in charge of England's 2018 World Cup bid have managed a coup of sorts.

They have enlisted two of Argentina's 1978 World Cup winners, Osvaldo "Ossie" Ardiles and Ricardo "Ricky" Villa in their campaign to stage the tournament in nine years.

The two former Tottenham Hotspur players, both 57 and both still immensely popular, live in England. They join the Galaxy's David Beckham as key spokesmen in the effort to bring the World Cup to their adopted home.

England is favored to be awarded the 2018 tournament when FIFA makes its decision in December 2010, despite a strong challenge by the U.S., which is more likely the favorite for 2022.

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Speaking of Beckham

That small dark cloud on the Galaxy's horizon has a date stamped on it: Nov. 14. That's the day England plays Brazil in Qatar in a prestige friendly between two World Cup-qualified teams.

It is also the weekend of Major League Soccer's conference finals. So the question becomes, will Beckham be with England in Qatar or with the Galaxy if it is playing for a place in the Nov. 22 MLS final?

More to the point, who will make that call -- England Coach Fabio Capello, Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena or Beckham?

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Monumental moment

Getting back to Maradona, who took a verbal swing or two at Pele before Brazil defeated Argentina, 3-1, in a recent World Cup qualifier, the Brazilian icon has returned the favor.

"People talk about the best being Pele or Maradona," Pele said on Thursday in Madrid, "but for me the best player ever was [Argentina's and Real Madrid's] Alfredo Di Stefano.

"Maradona was a great player, but he could not kick with his right foot and did not score goals with his head. The only time he scored an important goal with his head, it turned out he had used his hand."

Maybe the folks in Mexico City can tear down decrepit Azteca Stadium, where the infamous "hand of God" took place, and replace it with the sculpture of a giant hand.

It could be Maradona's finest monument.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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