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Maradona fascinates, frustrates Chinese

Shanghai: On his first visit to China, Diego Maradona passed on the Great Wall, skipped meetings to play golf and turned down interviews so he could eat chicken and watch soccer in his hotel suite.

The former Argentine soccer star’s sponsors say things couldn’t have gone better.

The ex-champion came to China to promote a sportswear line that bears his name. His antics ensured him heavy press coverage — even if not all reviews were positive.

“Taking advantage of Chinese football fans’ admirable tolerance, Maradona’s China tour is fast becoming a farce,” the Shanghai Star newspaper said in an article headlined “Prima Maradona.”

Maradona, who left on Monday for Paris, spent three weeks in Beijing and Shanghai to meet with investors and fans and discuss opening a soccer school on the southern island of Hainan.

Few financial details were available, but Chen Honglei, the Italian-based Chinese businessman whose company sponsored the visit, declared it a resounding success.

The visit added a strange new chapter to the career of the mercurial soccer genius who emerged from childhood poverty to become one of the game’s greatest forwards.

Retired since 1997, Maradona has struggled to find a role off the field, travelling restlessly and frequently stirring controversy.

Now a resident of Cuba, where Maradona went to quit cocaine and receive heart treatment, he has worked occasionally as a sports commentator but his finances are reported to be unsteady.

An Italian court last year upheld a $ 34 million tax bill. He is reported to also be fighting for custody of his two daughters.

China beckoned this spring, when the star signed on with Chen, who registered a Maradona sportswear company in Italy this year.

Maradona holds 20 per cent of the partnership and agreed to license his image and name, Chen said. Chen, who wouldn’t discuss financial details, said he also registered the Maradona trademark in China and plans to open a chain of stores to sell the brand.

As part of publicity for the deal, Maradona was scheduled to arrive in Beijing to celebrate his 43rd birthday on October 30 at the Great Wall of China.

He missed that date, but finally arrived two weeks later — reportedly after an unscheduled sojourn in Paris — and proceeded to skip a planned news conference and meeting with fans to play golf at an exclusive club on the city’s outskirts.

Moving on to Shanghai, Maradona again ignored the press.

For the first few days, he stayed in his hotel suite eating roasted chicken, drinking diet cola, and watching matches on satellite television, according to a producer for Shanghai’s Oriental television, who interviewed Maradona.

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