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After a raging and wild World Cup, Diego Maradona is all business in Sinaloa

It could all change in due course but Diego Maradona seems serious about building something in Sinaloa.
It could all change in due course but Diego Maradona seems serious about building something in Sinaloa.

CULIACAN, Mexico -- When Diego Armando Maradona jumped up and wildly celebrated his team's 90th-minute goal in 10-man Dorados de Sinaloa's 2-0 victory over Leones Negros on Saturday in Estadio Banorte, the 57-year-old should have felt some pain.

Maradona's knees -- plagued by osteoarthritis and shot from pain-killing injections -- should have logically hurt from such exertion. But if the Argentine legend was supposed to feel anything, the emotion and adrenaline of the late goal outweighed it.

"I didn't feel my knees in the goal celebrations," said Maradona in the post-match news conference. "The best doctors were the goals of [Cristhian] Baez and Vini [Angulo]. They were the two best injections I've had in years."

Maradona was a snapshot of happiness, draining every bit of joy possible from seeing his Mexican second-division team win in front of 8,103 fans in Culiacan, a city of around one million in which baseball in the number one sport.

"The sensation of winning is like receiving a kiss from my grandson on waking up or from my mother, who is no longer with me," added Maradona.

The 1986 World Cup winner may not be where he would have thought he'd be just over 20 years since his playing career ended. But he appears to be in a better place than he was at last summer's World Cup. At Russia 2018 in June, there was a health scare and he was also widely condemned for insensitive behavior.

The news of Maradona being appointed Dorados de Sinaloa head coach on Sept. 6 was something of a shock, but beyond surprise it also evoked some cynical reactions.

The truth is that the Argentine's erratic career choices mean it is difficult for him to truly surprise these days. Even set in context against Maradona's life, Culiacan is certainly a colorful destination for a career reboot. Like "El Diez" it is a place full of contradictions. It is a baseball city in a country where soccer is number one; the people are friendly and welcoming yet it is known as the center of narco-culture; a Jesus Malverde (a local patron saint heavily associated with narcos) chapel near the center of the city is just around the corner from a McDonald's; an upscale sake bar exists in a city that, like every other in Mexico, suffers from extreme poverty. Even the weather changes mood quickly, with Saturday's game beginning in intense and suffocating heat and humidity and descending into a tropical rain storm within 20 minutes.

The state of Sinaloa (Culiacan is the capital) feels different to Mexico's center. It moves to regional banda music, talks in a distinct accent, was the birthplace of famous singer and actor Pedro Infante and has produced a steady stream of soccer players to the Mexican national team including Jared Borgetti, Hector Moreno, Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez and Omar Bravo. The most famous sinaloense of all, however, is Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Diego Maradona, centre, has been trying to limit the strain of the job on his knees but can't resist celebrating goals by springing to his feet.
Diego Maradona, centre, has been trying to limit the strain of the job on his knees but can't resist celebrating goals by springing to his feet.

In some ways, Maradona fits the contradictory narrative of the city. In the space of just a few days, the working-class kid from the Villa Fiorito neighborhood in Buenos Aires has gone from making a poignant statement on real pressure being the struggle to put food on the table, to slamming Leones Negros' style of play and saying he would spit in the face of anyone who suggested that the red card for his player in Saturday's game was deserved.

In a sport that sees its stars increasingly sticking to the script, Maradona remains a complete outlier, not to mention the only footballer to have a church named after him.

So what is he doing in Mexico?

"Only Diego can"

"What Diego generates, no else in world [soccer] generates," Maradona's assistant Luis Islas, himself part of the 1986 World Cup-winning squad, told ESPN FC. "People want to greet him, want to kiss him, take photos and that's what he's earned in life... In our first training session here, there were 10,000 people. Only Diego generates that."

When Maradona jetted into Culiacan on Sept. 7, journalists from all corners of the world did too. There were over 100 media members in the 20,000-capacity stadium to see Maradona's first game in charge as Dorados -- owned, like first-division team Club Tijuana, by Grupo Caliente -- picked up their first win of the season in round seven of matches. But many of the stories focused on Culiacan's drug-trafficking reputation and Maradona's history of substance abuse.

Islas, left, is Maradona's assistant and played on the World Cup-winning Argentina team in 1986. Says Islas of Maradona, 'He's happy, he is working, he is full of hope.'
Islas, left, is Maradona's assistant and played on the World Cup-winning Argentina team in 1986. Says Islas of Maradona, 'He's happy, he is working, he is full of hope.'

In a sporting sense, Maradona certainly hasn't taken the easy option by coming to Dorados, a club in only its 15th year of existence. He hasn't taken the job because of big money, either. Dorados president Jose Antonio Nunez told ESPN that Maradona is "earning above what a second-division coach earns but isn't making more than what a first-division one does." A figure of under $1 million for the entirety of the contract, which runs out next May, has been reported. However, there are stipulations within the agreement that Maradona will get a cut of new sponsorships that come in as a result of his presence at the club.

The initial hype and excitement about his arrival -- forward Facundo Juarez said last Friday that the players thought it was a joke when they first heard Maradona may be coming to Culiacan -- has dissipated somewhat. Most of the foreign journalists have left, too; the shirt sales have slowed and there are plenty of empty seats in stadiums for games in a league in which the average attendance this season has been just 4,739.

What hasn't gone anywhere is the reality that he has a tough and real job to do.

"Diego arrives in a difficult moment. The risk [for him] is enormous because the team had only two goals over six games and had only won three points from 18. We're happy [with how it's gone so far]," said Nunez, who adds that Maradona hasn't missed any training sessions and has displayed "exemplary" behavior.

Adjusting to life in Culiacan

Maradona arrived in Sinaloa with only two suitcases, his assistant Islas and one personal secretary, who is a confidant of his agent and accompanies "El Diez" at all times, handling day-to-day chores such as arranging a hairdresser or coordinating transport. Most of the clothes Maradona has with him were given to him by the club. He's rarely been seen without club gear on and the cap sponsor, New Era, has apparently been particularly pleased with Maradona always keeping his Dorados one on.

The day before Saturday's game against Leones Negros, Maradona descended from his seventh-floor suite in Hotel Lucerna, in one of the nicer parts of Culiacan, at 9:15 a.m. and surprised the hotel's patrons by tucking into the breakfast buffet. From there, he presided over an afternoon training session, followed by an evening meal that went on until 11 p.m.

Watching Maradona take a training session brings mixed emotions. Even walking seems to be a struggle at times. The Ascenso MX website optimistically puts his weight at 85 kilograms (187 pounds), but that is surely an underestimation and the excess weight definitely doesn't help his knee issues. When Maradona kicks a ball, there is absolutely no indication that this was an ex-footballer, never mind one who once gave so much joy to so many. Yet seeing him motivated and enthused by the job, working in the game he clearly loves and winning battles in his personal war against substance abuse and the demons that have haunted him, is reassuring.

The fans are thrilled to have Maradona in town and the World Cup winner has been quick to sign autographs or mingle with supporters at any opportunity.
The fans are thrilled to have Maradona in town and the World Cup winner has been quick to sign autographs or mingle with supporters at any opportunity.

"It's Diego: his life has been characterized by mysticism," explained Nunez. "Few really know him on the inside, his spiritual life, what he lives with each day, what he has to overcome, the challenges he has in his private life.

"It must be very difficult to cope with his fame because he's only been here 20 days and I've had calls from Japan, Peru, England, Paris and all over South America, obviously Argentina above all, because his name is global," added Nunez.

Maradona's trusted assistant and longtime friend Islas agrees.

"He's happy, he is working, he is full of hope," Islas told ESPN FC. "For me it is a great honor to see Diego happy and it's a huge responsibility to manage alongside him because he's the number one in the world."

Former goalkeeper Islas has a crucial role in this project. Approachable and personable, Islas already knows the hotel staff, walks around with a wide smile on his face and considers Mexico his "second home," having played part of his career in Toluca and Leon. He talks of being at Dorados for years, of bringing his family to Culiacan to live by the end of the year and that plans for next season's preseason with Maradona in charge are already being developed. There's a desire to spend that time implementing the high-pressing, attacking game that Dorados' coaching staff want to employ.

Among those inside the club, there seems to be an underlying annoyance that Maradona isn't being given the due respect regarding his knowledge of the game.

"A coach managing in the second division and that has managed in a World Cup and got to a quarterfinal has never existed," stressed Nunez. "So when they talk to me about whether he has the numbers or not, it all depends how you want to see it. For me, (Maradona) is a capable coach."

On Maradona's floor in Hotel Lucerna -- the same hotel where Pep Guardiola lived when he played for Dorados in 2006 -- there is a security guard who leaves his door open to hear anyone coming up, but Diego isn't locked in some kind of ivory tower. Someone with Maradona's status may not have the freedom to go out and about like Guardiola could, but the Argentine did venture out to a shopping mall and there certainly isn't a huge security entourage around him.

Yet the freedom Maradona has is very much relative. It's difficult to believe he could swim in the hotel pool without photos and memes emerging, and until Maradona has his own house, for example, he'll likely continue to order in specially prepared dishes such as risotto and lean meat from local restaurant Los Argentinos.

"Before we saw him as untouchable and now we're seeing what he's like," Hector Valencia, one of the leaders of Dorados supporters' group Escuadron Aurinegro, told ESPN FC. "One of our main doubts and fears was with what frame of mind he'd be coming here in... but we've seen he is open to kids, youngsters and even adults coming up to him to ask for autographs."

Maradona poses with fans after Saturday's match, sporting a t-shirt lending support to those raising money to support flood relief in Sinaloa.
Maradona poses with fans after Saturday's match, sporting a T-shirt lending support to those raising money to support flood relief in Sinaloa.

Valencia doesn't shy away from demanding that Maradona's spell in charge must be judged on results, and that side of things has gone well so far. "El Gran Pez" has reacted to Maradona's appointment by winning six points out of a possible nine in his first three games in the league. Dorados are now in the playoff race: one team will be promoted to Liga MX next May.

"If I'd hired Diego because of his fame, I couldn't have paid [him]," said Nunez, who stressing the idea is to win promotion. "He is here because, in his words, this was the only genuine project in which he'd be involved on the pitch because he's making decisions."

"Diego isn't here to sell tickets. That's for the players I have," he added later. "[Diego] is here to coach."

Dorados are currently in the process of renovating the stadium and the long-term goal is to become an established first-division club. Like the team president, Maradona is also talking a good game and even showed up to the press conference on Saturday wearing a T-shirt in support of those affected by recent and devastating floods in Sinaloa.

"Here they give us everything, they pamper us, they leave us alone to work," said Maradona. "That is priceless."

Maradona's recent history suggests the odds of it working out over the long term are slim. But in these early days in Culiacan, "El Diez" has a smile back on his face.

"I gave my word to the Dorados president: I'm going to live here hopefully for many years."

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