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Argentina head coach Diego Maradona blows a kiss before the World Cup Group B soccer match between Argentina and Nigeria at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg on June 12. ((Martin Meissner/Associated Press))

Saturday, June 12

Two hours to match time and I have made my way up to my nosebleed seat in Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. I think I am early and that I will be alone.

Wrong.

I have clearly been beaten by the Argentines. The wall behind me is draped with a huge national flag and all around the stadium there are handmade banners hanging from the second and third decks.  

On a couple of them, there are drawings of the Argentine soccer demigod Diego Maradona

To my left a couple of hundred fellows in blue and white wigs and matching striped jerseys are dancing up and down, swigging down the official World Cup beer. Same to my right. Across the field there is section after section of white and blue. They are almost all men. They exercise their lungs shouting out an old soccer song:

Vamos, vamos Argentina, vamos, vamos a ganar, que esta barra quilombera.

For the first time since I have been in Johannesburg, the ever-present honking of vuvuzelas has been drowned out. I think these obsessive fellows are singing something that is slightly off-colour.

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An Argentine fan wearing a Maradona mask holds a stuffed glove that says in Spanish 'the hand of God' at the World Cup soccer match between Argentina and Nigeria. ((Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press))

Come on, come on, Argentina, come on, we will win in this noisy brothel.

There is a hush, and then even greater pandemonium when a roly-poly guy in a navy blue track suit comes striding out of the dressing room tunnel and onto the field.

"Maradona," they chant, "Maradona, Maradona, Maradona!"

El Grande waves. Blows kisses. A hundred photographers trip over themselves to get close when the roly-poly guy in the blue track suit walks over to the sidelines and just hangs out.

Most loved, most despised

Maradona. Number 10, the author of 34 goals during his international career, the passionate leader of Argentina's 1986 World Cup championship team, along with Brazil's PelĂ©, he is best player ever. The most colourful. The most loved and the most despised.

He is the author of one of the most controversial World Cup goals ever in a semi-final match against England when he knocked the ball into the goal with his left hand. "Un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios."  A goal, he said, that was scored "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God."

On the pitch the Argentine players warm up, stretching and kicking balls around in the late afternoon sunshine.

Maradona wanders among them, chats up his goaltender, puts his arm around the shoulders of Lionel Messi, his star player, and huddles with a couple of his assistant coaches.

Then he is back blowing more kisses. He is up on the giant screens, a huge smile across his face, his curly black hair tousled by the breeze.

Fifteen minutes to game time and Maradona and his players head into the tunnel. El Grande waves some more and hugs someone who has come out to shake his hand.

On the flight over I watched the documentary about Maradona by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kustica. It is tremendous, a political take on the complex man whose ability with a soccer ball lifted him from poverty and made him an international superstar.

Game on

He is also a man whose political opinions are as spectacular as his free kicks.

El Grande is a former cocaine lover and a much-loved friend of Fidel Castro. Over the decades, he has never shied away from publicizing his distaste of American foreign policy and American presidents. The Bushes were favourite targets.

And the game is on.

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(CBC)

David Gutnick is a Montreal-based documentary producer with CBC Radio's Sunday Edition. Over the past 20 years, he has worked for many CBC and Radio-Canada programs. In summer 2008, he reported from the Beijing Olympics. In 2007, he was in Mauritania, Togo and Ghana reporting on slavery and, in early 2010, he spent almost a month in Haiti, where he reported extensively for CBCNews.ca.

The brilliant play by both sides is why we are here, their abilities with the ball defying gravity. I am a soccer neophyte and simply dazzled by the poetry of it all. 

I keep looking over to the benches.

Nigeria's coach Lars Lagerback, in a green tracksuit, is up and down from the bench, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. He looks at the ground and over to his assistants. He is European and hired to make Nigeria into a contender. He has clearly done the job he is paid to do. The team is giving Argentina a hard time and only down by one goal.

Lagerback is a distinguished-looking, white-haired guy who looks like he could be equally comfortable in a boardroom if he was not trying to squeeze out the best from 20 of Nigeria's top athletes.

A promise

Thirty metres away it is an entirely different scene.

El Grande is in a beautifully tailored suit and shiny black loafers. He is right at the edge of the grass, his hands relaxed behind his back. He leans when the ball is kicked hard, his shoulders twist when the ball is headed high into the air. His whole body has become part of the game.

When the play moves close to the sidelines, Maradona stays put. When the ball bounces out, Maradona jogs over to retrieve it and gives it to a referee. Another ball bounces out. He deftly kicks it up and it lands gently in the Nigerian player's hands. Maradona nods and taps him on the shoulder, just like the players do.

Vamos, vamos Argentina, vamos, vamos a ganar, que esta barra quilombera.

Just before the Argentine team left for South Africa, Maradona was on the radio. The team had just defeated Canada 5-0 in a warmup match.

Maradona promised that if Argentina wins the World cup he will run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires.

You will not want to miss it.