- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 17, 2005

Bad boy Italian striker Paolo Di Canio is in trouble again after giving a fascist salute as he was substituted for in Lazio’s 2-1 loss to Livorno on Sunday. According to reports, some Lazio fans waved swastika flags, while the Livorno fans waved communist flags. Di Canio was fined $13,400 for a similar gesture in January.

It all goes to show mixing soccer and politics can result in a nasty brew.

For example, two former soccer greats also have been causing a stir in the political arena recently.

Diego Maradona, who almost single-handedly won the World Cup for Argentina in 1986, led a massive demonstration denouncing free trade and President Bush’s visit to the Summit of the Americas in Argentina last month. Looking trim after having his stomach stapled, the recovering cocaine addict appeared with Venezuela’s socialist president, Hugo Chavez, and sent the crowd into a frenzy with his chants of “Che Guevara.” Wearing a T-shirt with the words “War Criminal” over a picture of Bush, Maradona, 45, declared: “I’m proud as an Argentine to repudiate the presence of this human trash, George Bush.”

In an interview with CNN, Mexican president Vicente Fox said of Maradona: “He has a good foot for kicking, but he doesn’t have a good brain for talking.”

However, Maradona, who often visits Fidel Castro in Cuba (he has the dictator’s image tattooed on his calf) but snubbed an invitation to last week’s World Cup draw, has profited from capitalism. Following his outburst against free trade, Maradona was scheduled to play in a testimonial game in Germany for Brazilian soccer player Julio Cesar. At the last minute, Maradona demanded a $200,000 appearance fee, forcing Cesar to say: “Maradona is over for me.”

Meanwhile, soccer star-turned-politician George Weah still stubbornly disputes the presidential election in Liberia, where he seems to have lost by a wide margin to Harvard-trained economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Weah, 39, whose brilliant dribbling made him a star with a number of clubs, including AC Milan and Chelsea, announced on his private radio station this week: “I am the elected president of Liberia, not Ellen Sirleaf. They stole my victory, and I am here to say loud and clear that I am the winner of the elections.”

Riots followed his comments. In war-torn Liberia, where most of Weah’s supporters are dispossessed urban youth and ex-fighters from the African nation’s 14-year civil war, his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the results could prove volatile. Weah, who was named the world player of the year in 1995 and has been a gentleman throughout his career, is starting to look like a poor loser.

And the ugliness of soccer and politics isn’t just current. Brazilian star Pele jumped into politics in 1995, when he became Brazil’s sports minister, but the experience left him disenchanted. He tried to clean up the corruption in Brazilian soccer over a three-year period but ended up being hated by many club owners. Even though he led Brazil to three World Cup championships and is loved all over the world, he was heavily criticized in his homeland for his policies.

There always was a nasty mix of politics and soccer in the former Yugoslavia, where notorious warlord Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic was the president of Red Star Belgrade’s fan club. Arkan used the 1991 European Championship team to recruit soldiers to fight in the Bosnian War. He was later assassinated.

And we all remember how Saddam Hussein’s son Uday (the president of Iraq’s soccer association and the Olympic team) had members of the Iraqi national team tortured after a World Cup qualifying loss to Japan in 2001.

When it comes to America, the most likely soccer player to enter politics is former U.S. women’s team captain Julie Foudy, a vocal supporter of Title IX. But after campaigning for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, Foudy says she was turned off by all the money involved in politics.

One the most successful transitions from soccer to politics was made by Oleg Blokhin, the 1975 European footballer of the year who is now a member of parliament in Ukraine. Earlier this year, Blokhin, a former star with Dynamo Kiev, received permission to coach Ukraine at the World Cup and still remain in parliament.

Ghana wants Freddy — According to the BBC Web site, Ghana has not given up on trying to lure the Ghana-born Freddy Adu to represent the African team at the World Cup.

“We have decided to contact Adu to ask him to decide whether he would like to play for Ghana or the United States,” Black Stars coach Ratomir Dujkovic told the BBC.

Adu, 16, has yet to play for the U.S. senior team but has been invited to the American training camp next month.

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