Diego Maradona, arguably the best soccer player ever to have graced the game, has re-emerged as a TV host in a bizarre yet compelling programme produced by Venezuelan TV and beamed live to most of Latin America, with Argentina's state channel among the broadcasters. Co-hosting with legendary Uruguay-born commentator Victor Hugo Morales, Maradona has hit the continent's TV screens after a prolonged absence from the limelight, having retired for a quiet life in Saudi Arabia.
The show, a daily hour-long close to the day's events, is called "De Zurda" ("With the Left" or "On the Left"), a homage to both the left foot with which he conquered the ball and to the left-wing policies he claims to support. In the first edition, he spoke earnestly to the late Venezuelan populist leader Hugo Chavez, "whom I'm sure has a TV up there and is watching us," he noted. During another programme, much was made of a tweet of support sent by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner to her Brazilian counterpart Dilma Rousseff -- something Maradona welcomed, offering a kiss to camera to both women. "Dilma is playing a tough match of her own and she needs support" he said, referring to both leaders by their first name, conveying a sense of familiarity.
Wearing excessive make-up, jet-black hair dye and slightly overweight, he appears, at first, slightly monstrous. To boot, he speaks with a slow drawl, as if struggling to find the words, or in need of gallons of water to cure dry-mouth syndrome. He mixes his political messages -- lashing out against FIFA leaders, whom he terms "the cement that ate the ball" -- with tearful ovations to his dead mother. Now and again he will open his eyes very wide, his brows thick with black paste, with his dark lips appearing slightly swollen, like the time he recounted scoring with his hand against England in 1986, and asked his team-mate Sergio "Checho" Batista to hug him and celebrate quickly so the referee wouldn't notice.
His own sense of self-importance has not waned over time. He shares details of his contracts, and his reasons for doing things, which have a tendency to seem irrelevant at best and positively delusional at worst. But if anybody is living proof that the ridiculous can give way to the sublime, it is Diego Maradona.
His tale of rags to riches captivated the world for generations. His history of drug abuse and personal failings humanised what would otherwise be the iconic status of a deity, and his talent on the pitch has moved grown men to tears from all over the world. Having been close to death more than once (he likes to speak of the time "when I died," possibly believing he actually did die and come to life again -- normal rules don't apply to him), it's an empirical truth that his potential demise has triggered vigils around the planet, with candlelit homages and mass prayers from Naples to Bangladesh.
He has always bounced back to life, and among his many rebirths there was one as a TV show host almost 10 years ago now, when he underwent stomach-stapling surgery and stunned viewers with a return to fitness in an extraordinary production in which he combined guests from historically popular Mexican children's TV with video interviews with Fidel Castro. He played football-tennis live with the likes of Lionel Messi, had Pele playing the guitar and commanded a massive demonstration against the G8 summit in the same breath. That was "La Noche del 10" ("The Night of the 10").
"De Zurda" promises to be less spectacular in terms of in-studio entertainment. So far, we have been treated to Maradona moving around Brazil followed by a camera, so if he goes to be interviewed somewhere, for instance, we get to see him arrive and hug and kiss every crew member of another TV show. We've also had snippets of him running on a treadmill, explaining through a breathless sweat that it's important for him to be fit -- but the guest list will no doubt more than make up for this. The Bulgaria legend Hristo Stoichkov turned up with an impressive revolutionary message -- he was part of a posse of elite players who, together with Maradona, tried to set up a union or syndicate of the world's best to fight for their rights: "FIFA boycotted us so we couldn't get any sponsors," Stoichkov and Maradona claimed on the programme this week.
Another excellent interviewee was Argentina-born Mauro Camoranesi, who won a World Cup with Italy in 2006. Camoranesi turned out to be a fascinating man, humble yet insightful. He told of how, having failed to find a club in Argentina, he had an unsuccessful trial in Chile and ended up playing in Uruguay briefly before becoming an Italy national. He said that, when you win a World Cup, you don't realise what's happened until much, much later -- years later -- when people express gratitude as if he had done them a favour. Something about being interviewed by Maradona seemed to unleash an honesty in Camoranesi that more traditional journalists might struggle to tap into.
Another guest was Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, a departure from football that disappoints football purists but is likely to occur now and again during the World Cup month. Everything about the programme -- including its huge state-sponsored budget -- suggests an agenda driven without a hint of subtlety. The title song -- composed by an assortment of Latin American stars including Argentina's Gustavo Santaolalla, who won Academy Awards for the "Brokeback Mountain" and "Babel" scores -- makes reference to this continent that lies "on the left side of the planet" and that welcomes the World Cup to its soil after decades. "In an upside-down world, it's best to kick with the left," the lyrics say, with a heavy focus on Latin American unity and a clear slant supporting the policies of several of the region's current governments.
Amid the shameless propaganda, some good journalism is coming through, and gems both from the guests and Maradona are retrievable. In particular, and evocative of his last public reincarnation as Argentina boss during the 2010 World Cup, Maradona is managing to reveal his unique vision and reading of the game. When he talks tactics and lineups, there is no hint of the textbook about it, nor does he follow the increasingly typical parlance of pundits; instead, he talks as if he were holding a casual conversation with some mates in a bar, peppered with slang expressions and colloquialisms, but providing insights into the mind of a true elite player that are second to none.
"We finally saw how the ball beat the strikes and protests," he pronounced after the opening match, as he casually tapped the Ecuadorian president on the leg. Just two days earlier, he was lamenting the lack of World Cup fever, saying the mood felt cold, and the social protests posed a threat. He doesn't mince words, and takes every opportunity he can to badmouth those he regards as unsavoury. Back in 1986, he protested FIFA's decision to hold matches in midday heat to make the most of European prime-time TV audiences, and today he continues to send similar vitriol towards the powers that be: "I wish the players and the squad all the luck in the world, but I wish the directors of the Argentine FA all the bad luck in the world."
The World Cup is only just getting started, and we're in for a month of action on the pitch. But with the enfant terrible of the football establishment sharing his wisdom with the whole of the American continent ("At this stage in the tournament, the players will react in different ways to the pressure they're under -- one might go to the lavatory a few times too many, another might stop eating altogether ... "), it means there is another big show worthy of close attention.
There is a line he often repeats: "I was taken from the slum and placed on top of the Eiffel Tower, expected to give a press conference and come up with something sensible to say." But he is capable of talking sense and, as the football takes over, he is in his element.
"De Zurda" offers a blend of laughter, embarrassment and horror. It is full of contradictions, opinionated, questionable, at times surreal, and capable of moments of lucidity and genius. For a flavour of the mesmerising Maradona, it is hard to beat.