Diego Maradona is on the brink of ending a miserable year, which began with a cocaine overdose, by being declared FIFA's player of the century. The Argentine bad-boy - rushed into intensive care after collapsing in January following a drug binge - has emerged as an unlikely favourite ahead of Brazilian legend Pele to pick up the award in Rome tomorrow night. Reports from South America, quoting top Argentine FA officials, said latest figures had Maradona with 78,000 votes and Pele on 26,000. Votes were registered on FIFA's website and by readers of the international body's magazine.

The furore surrounding the race for the accolade is threatening to overshadow FIFA's annual guessing game to discover the World Player of the Year, which will also be announced tomorrow night. Portugal's Luis Figo, the world's most expensive footballer, French midfield wizard Zinedine Zidane and Barcelona's Rivaldo, who pipped David Beckham to the title last year, are the candidates. But their battle has taken a back-seat in the build-up to the evening amid raging speculation over just who should be declared the footballer of the 20th century. Originally it was expected Pele would win, he enjoyed far greater success at international level than Maradona, being a member of three World Cup winning squads and scorer of more than 1,000 goals in a glittering career that spanned three decades. Pele is also widely held to have conducted himself flawlessly on and off the pitch, fabled for his sportsmanship and becoming a world-wide ambassador for the sport in his retirement.

Maradona - with only one World Cup victory in 1986 to his name - is a different proposition altogether. While his individual footballing genius cannot be questioned, the portly playmaker has frequently found himself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He has earned the dubious distinction of exiting two World Cups in shame. In 1982 he was sent off as Argentina were dumped out by Brazil, and in USA 1994 he was booted out of the tournament in disgrace after failing a dope test. The list of Maradona's crimes and misdemeanours is lengthy, from taking pot-shots at journalists with an air rifle to facing a probe by Italian authorities over links with the Neapolitan Mafia during his spell at Napoli. However, it is Maradona's drug problems that have been at the root of most of his woes. Banned by FIFA for 15 months for testing positive for cocaine, he was hospitalised in Uruguay in January this year for overdosing on the drug.

But while FIFA's world player of the year is decided upon by a poll of more than 1,000 top coaches and players, the player of the century has been left for fans to decide. Which means that thanks to an Internet cyber-blitz from Maradona fans, Pele could be left out in the cold come tomorrow night.


Filed by Pat Nugent