World Cup, Argentina, and Maradona's Hand of God

Earlier this week in Buenos Aires you could tell World Cup fever was heating up because authorities in Johannesburg were already sending football hooligans back to their respective countries.

"Ten hooligans have been sent back to Argentina for inciting violence," explained Alejandro--my driver for the travel company Say Hueque. "They arrived at the airport shouting and trying to beat up journalists. They're very aggressive," he added about the country's barras bravas-the organized group renowned for football-related violence. "They're angry with South Africa. They're angry with Argentina."

To avoid having this journalist beaten up, I was brought to the Buenos Aires airport four hours before my flight departed. Unlike, say, The Raider Nation, the Argentinean football hooligans are real thugs. Besides disrupting matches the barras bravas are also known to carry out muscle dirty work for local shady politicians. According to the police, out of the ten Argentinean hooligans that were deported from J'burg, at least two were group leaders and another was out on bail for murder--you know as in "murder".

"It's nothing we are proud about," Alejandro remarked, who plans to watch the Argentina matches in very non-hooligan fashion: with his 90-year-old dad and a fine bottle of wine.

Though there was no loutish behavior from barras bravas at the Buenos Aires airport, I did note a large amount of delicious sandwiches de miga sold at the kiosk.

Maradona-one of the greatest football players of all time and head coach of the Argentina national team-denied last week links to hooligans following reports that a group of barras bravas had traveled with the team to South Africa.

Far from a perfect human being, Maradona is one of the true rock stars of football-literally. In his heyday, he was suspended from football for 15 months after failing a drug test. On an Argentinean talk show, the legendary football player--who rivaled Pele in stature--once said, "Without cocaine I would have been a really good player." (Ironic laugh inserted here.)

"It's very emotional with Maradona," explained my friend Rafael-who runs Say Hueque. "He gave us the World Cup. He's intense. He hates big powers--he works for the people. He's dirty. He even insulted the Pope." (Pause.) He's very honest."

The people of Argentina love Maradona. La Boca is a funky Buenos Aires neighborhood that retains a strong European flavor; dotted with colorful houses constructed of corrugated iron. Many of its early settlers where from the Italian city of Genoa.

La Boca is also the residence of Maradona's home football stadium. When the Say Hueque crew took me to the Boca Junior's Stadium (also known as "La Bombonera") there was actually a man who makes his living as a Maradona impersonator. For ten pesos you could get your picture taken with the Maradona doppelganger--clearly, having the worldwide Maradona impersonator market cornered. Yes, the man looked just like Maradona--if Maradona ate one empanada too many. (At least he wore the same Argentina jersey.) I guess the real Maradona also looks like he ate one empanada too many these days. By the way, the Boca Junior stadium is one amazing architectural feat of football splendor that fits 61,000 fans who cheer on the home team.

"The word Maradona has saved me so many times," Rafael confessed. "I've been in small towns in Morocco where they want to rob you. I'll say I'm from Argentina and say the word 'Maradona'. Their whole attitude changes--it's the key word. (Pause.) Of course they can still rob you." He then added, "Maradona and the Pope--they are the most famous people on earth."

In the United States we tend to forget the global impact that "soccer" has on the rest of the world. Even in the most remote part of Iguazu-in the northern region of Argentina along the Brazilian border-I jogged past the tiniest Guaraní village. Though lacking in basic amenities, there would still be a makeshift set of goals set up on a dirt field-all needed is a ball and a pair of feet to play the greatest game on earth.

When the Argentina team left for the airport to travel to South Africa, the entire city came to a standstill as citizens arrived in droves to wish them good luck. Every inch of this wonderful city you could feel football pulsating through its veins. During the matches, the streets of Buenos Aires will be deserted as everyone will be glued to their televisions cheering on their beloved team.

"It's important for our social pride to be in the World Cup," Rafael concluded. "It's really an important part of the culture. If Argentina wins it will really change the social humor and psyche of the country."