Church of Maradona celebrates his 48th birthday
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Diego Maradona's fans gathered on Wednesday for a mock religious procession for the soccer star's 48th birthday and upcoming introduction as Argentina coach.
Ringing in the year D.D. 48 ("Despues," or "After" Diego), about 300 fans carried relics including a soccer ball crowned with thorns and a "goalary," an oversized rosary, with 34 beads -- the number of goals Maradona scored for Argentina.
They call themselves the Church of Maradona.
Founded by a group of friends in Rosario, a port city to the north of Buenos Aires, it has swelled to more than 120,000 members. But founder Marcela Amez was quick to caution that they don't believe they're a real church.
"It's a football church," he said.
Dozens of more members were "baptized" on Wednesday by slamming a soccer ball with their hand, in homage to the "Hand of God" goal Maradona scored against England in the 1986 World Cup.
Some England fans questioned that part of the event.
"We see it as a complete cheat and they celebrate it," said London resident Bertie Conibear, 21, in Buenos Aires on a study abroad program.
While he said the ceremony was "pretty bizarre," he admitted there's intense soccer passion in England too.
The Church of Maradona call him D10S -- Spanish for "God" and incorporating the player's jersey number "10."
"I would have to live 20,000 years to do everything he did," said member David Orlando, Maradona will turn 48 on Thursday.
On Tuesday, he will be introduced as national coach in the face of growing doubts by his countrymen that he has enough coaching experience.
His fans, however, were unconcerned.
Maradona's appointment "is the best thing that can happen to this country," Orlando said. "He gave us so much, it's time we gave back something to him."
Added Mariano Tolosa, 22: "Diego is a symbol of Argentina and it's an honor that he can now represent us before the whole world."
While they praised him as "D10S," his followers also acknowledged his flaws -- the drug addictions, obesity, being kicked out of the 1994 World Cup for doping, and jail sentence for shooting an air gun at reporters.
"As we say about Diego 'We thank you for so much and pardon you for so little," Tolosa said.
"Re-watching footage of Diego play football fills me with so much joy it's difficult to describe," said Leonardo Diaz, 20, clutching a replica of the 1986 World Cup.
More than anything, the members hope Maradona will restore the national team to its former glory.
"We will once again be champions," they chanted on Wednesday night with a little more hope than last year.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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