Even before his playing days ended, Maradona's life started unraveling. He got hooked on drugs, gained weight, and nearly died of a heart attack after a cocaine overdose. He did a rehab stint in Cuba (Fidel Castro is a close friend), got clean and sober several years ago, and started a gig as a television talk-show host. He was named Argentina's national team manager in 2008 despite possessing meager coaching experience.
Just 22, Messi resembles Maradona in both size (he's five feet seven inches; Maradona is five feet five) and talent. Both were teenagers when they debuted for Argentina, quickly rising to superstar status. Messi, however, tends to be more soft-spoken than his outrageous mentor, both on and off the field, and he has so far avoided the tabloid controversy that has dogged Maradona throughout his career.
John Bocwinski of Naples, Florida, is optimistic about Argentina's chances in South Africa. "This is Argentina's year," he says. "Mark my words. This is going to be Messi's World Cup."
Bocwinski, a retired autoworker born and raised in Argentina of Polish immigrant parents, continued to play soccer after moving to Wisconsin as a teenager and eventually represented the U.S. National Team in the 1972 Olympics. He tells the moving story of a time he played a game against Argentina and the opposing coach gave him a blue-and-white-striped Argentina jersey to wear under his U.S. uniform.
"I cried like a baby when they played the national anthems," he says. The anecdote sums up his feelings about soccer: he roots for the United States, but he takes pride in his Argentine heritage and follows the team's fortunes.
Bocwinski, 73, who coached Carthage College in Wisconsin in the 1980s, believes the quality of the players will overcome the manager's shortcomings. The Albicelestes's struggles in qualifying only mean the team will be stronger come the big tournament.
"Argentina is like a wounded animal," he warns. "The world had better watch out."
After attending three World Cups to support Argentina, including the 2006 tournament in Germany, Bocwinski will stay home to watch the games this summer. He plans to invite his brother and son over to watch the games on TV and eat barbecue Argentine-style—"with a good Malbec wine and some homemade chimichurri, of course."