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Maradona "in love" with Chavez

April 01, 2005 11:14 IST

Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona said on Thursday he was "in love" with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whom he admires for his left-wing political policies.

"I like women, but I've fallen in love with Chavez," Argentina's former World Cup winning captain told reporters after having lunch with the Venezuelan leader at the presidential palace. The two embraced afterward.

The 44-year-old soccer celebrity, considered one of the greatest players of all time, is also an ardent admirer of Fidel Castro, the Communist President of Cuba where Maradona has lived since 2000 while fighting cocaine addiction.

Severely overweight, he recently had a stomach stapling operation in Colombia to lose weight and is in Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter, to kick off a South American under-17 soccer championship starting Friday.

Maradona, who like Chavez is a fierce critic of the U.S. government, praised the populist Venezuelan president as "a giant" because of the way he was spending oil revenue on health and education programs to help the country's poor.

"I think he's an example to follow, if only many other countries had a Chavez (as leader) ... I think we're seeing someone who's following in the footsteps of Fidel Castro," said Maradona, who has a tattoo on his arm of legendary Argentine guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

Opponents accuse Chavez, who was first elected in 1998, of squandering Venezuela's oil wealth and dragging the country toward Cuba-style communism.

Maradona said he would be willing to participate along with Cuban sports instructors in government programs to teach soccer to the poor in Venezuela's slums and countryside.

"I say to Chavez, I'm available for whatever he needs me for," he said, although he had not asked for a specific job in Venezuela, where baseball is still more widespread than soccer. "I told him I'll teach him soccer if he teaches me baseball," he added.

Maradona, who helped Argentina win the World Cup in 1986 and stopped playing professionally in 1997, was a surprise guest at a summit on Tuesday in Venezuela of the presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Spain, hosted by Chavez.

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