'Church of Maradona' Celebrates Former Player's Birth

Maradona ornaments swung from a Christmas Tree and soccer studs hung from a cross as fanatical followers of the former Argentina international raucously celebrated his birth.

Diego Maradona's birthday Thursday marked the start of the year 43 D.D. -- "despues de Diego," or after Diego -- for some 200 Church of Maradona members who met in a swanky club to pay homage to the player.

"In Diego, I think, I feel and I exist," said Sergio Martina, 49, a painter whose depictions of Maradona were on display at the party.

"There have been many icons in Argentina, at one time it was (tango singer Carlos) Gardel, later it was Evita (Peron). Today Maradona is our living legend," Martina said.

Some 20,000 people from as far away as Iceland and Vietnam have become church members via the official web site, said Alejandro Veron, 34, co-founder of the group.

Asked if they truly think Maradona is God, Veron shook his head. "We are all Roman Catholic. We have a God of Reason, which is Christ, and a God of the Heart, which is Diego," he said.

Maradona, regarded as one of the finest players in the game, led Argentina to World Cup victory in 1986, when he scored one of the best goals in the tournament's history in the quarter-final against England.

But his career was blighted by trouble and drug use off the field, and he was kicked out of the 1994 World Cup in the United States for failing a dope test. Maradona now spends most of his time in Cuba, where he is in drug rehabilitation.

"That just shows he's human, which makes me feel even closer to him," said 23-year-old Ana (10) Espinosa, who has followed the Church's "ninth commandment" by incorporating the player's name, or in her case his shirt number, into her own name.

She was standing near a nativity scene where a suited-up Maradona was flanked by two angels. A group of men in curly black wigs showed off their "Gracias D10S" T-shirts and a young man played a tango he had composed for the player.