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January 20, 2012

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Soccer legend Maradona comes to town

ARGENTINE soccer legend Diego Maradona has been called the "Hand of God" and the greatest player of the 20th century and the 51-year-old showed his powerful spirit in Shanghai this week - for charity.

Despite recent surgery to remove kidney stones and despite becoming stout in retirement, Maradona was undaunted.

He insisted on shooting balls for charity and interacting with boys. His spirit was infectious and crowds cheered "Diego! Diego!" as he headed, chested and volleyed the ball.

Today he coaches Al Wasl in the United Arab Emirates. Maradona recently was fined for criticizing a rival coach and his team has been banned from playing two matches at home this month due to fan trouble.

Q: What's the most important thing for young soccer players?

A: I feel so happy to join the event today. I had fun with the kids. If anyone has the ability, they should help children. For me, family is so important and inside a family the children are the most important. How children can happily grow up is all about how much care and love their parents and society can give them.

Q: Many soccer stars struggle drugs and alcohol. The latest tragedy was Socrates, the Brazilian football legend who died of illness in December at age 57. It seems your own health hasn't been so good. Have you thought about changing your habits?

A: I agree. Many things can pull life away from you unintentionally and some may cause tragedies. I appreciated Socrates a lot and I'm sorry for him. Maybe it was too late for him. (He died of food poisoning but had a liver transplant because of alcohol abuse.) I had some bad habits and fortunately my daughters saved me, so I can enjoy my life today. That's why I appreciate my family so much. Every day I wake up to see the sunshine, to be with my family, to come to China, to coach in the UAE. These things give me power. But bad habits are not picked up by athletes only. It can happen to everyone in the spotlight such as actors, singers, dancers and even journalists. We should not only focus on athletes.

Q: How's your health now?

A: I had an operation to remove kidney stones several days ago but since I promised to come, I came. After this I'll take a break. I'll take medicine and hopefully I can recover soon.

Q: When can Argentina win the World Cup again, as they did when you played in 1986?

A: Argentina has very good players but we didn't win despite many tries. Now we have Lionel Messi and other good players and I hope we can win. If the team wins the World Cup, it's because the players deserve it, not the officials. I had some disagreements with officials but the players are good. (In 2010, Maradona's contract to coach the national team was not renewed.)

Q: Lionel Messi just won the Ballon d'Or for the third consecutive year. Can he surpass you in the near future?

A: I'll be happy if Lionel becomes greater than me, which of course will take time to prove. I agree Lionel is the best player in the world right now. If one day he can be the best of the best, greater than me, it will be very good for Argentina's soccer. After all, besides me, Lionel can also stand tall.

Q: As a player you were unruly and hard to control, advocating freedom. As a coach, how can you manage players with a personality like yours?

A: Yes, being unruly and wanting freedom is part of my life. I have experienced that period, and I won't behave like that anymore. Today I know who is a good player and who is not when I take over a team. I will carry on the good things I've done and avoid the bad things I've done - this can only be felt by the person who had the experience. This is one of the sources of the good experience I bring to my team. I can lead a team to the heights. I hope I can bring my experience to my players and help them grow.

Q: What's your advice for Chinese soccer? If Chinese clubs invited you to coach, would you consider it?

A: I'm very interested in China's soccer. Besides Chinese clubs, my agent encouraged me to come here to coach. But now I am coaching in the UAE because they found me first. A promise is very important. Since I promised them, I will meet my commitment.

Q: Your thoughts on Chinese soccer?

A: (It's a) strange situation - how can a country with such a large population not be able to organize a good team to win? At first many people said the problem is in youth training. I agreed, people need to find a solution. But I believe Chinese officials should study how to organize a good team that's aggressive enough. This is the key. They have to be confident and eager to get farther and higher.

Q: Many Argentine players like Dario Leonardo Conca joined the Chinese Super League. They play well but their contracts are sky high. Your thoughts?

A: These players are very good and the clubs know their value. They sign them for two reasons - to promote the sport and to improve Chinese soccer with high-level players. From this viewpoint, signing these players is good for development of soccer in China.

Q: Would you support Napoli or Barcelona if they meet in the European finals?

A: Napoli. Barcelona are skilled but I dedicated my best time to Napoli. Napoli is like Argentina and is always in my heart.


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