An Apology to Maradona, a Rollicking Genius
By playing to his team’s strength — attacking — Diego Maradona has led Argentina to a quarterfinal game against Germany, despite his lack of coaching experience.
By ROB HUGHES
Published: July 2, 2010
Dear Diego: It is high time that we critics say sorry, and thank you.
We misjudged your appointment as coach. We believed that Julio Grondona, the 78-year-old president of Argentina’s soccer federation, had lost all sense of reason in asking you, a fading icon without a coaching badge, to pick up a broken national team and lead it through this World Cup.
Well, so much for so-called expertise.
Whatever happens between Argentina and Germany in Cape Town on Saturday, your team has been the joy of this tournament.
You have breathed life into an overly cautious era in the sport. Your players — Lionel Messi, of course, and Carlos Tévez, Gonzalo Higuaín and others — have blown away inhibition.
The talent is obvious, even to us failed know-it-alls. The group of players you inherited was clearly unbalanced. You have more forwards than you need, and too few defenders of real quality.
Even so, most certified coaches would set out to do what Brazil did during the course of the tournament — defend in greater numbers and attack only sporadically.
Not so Maradona. You liberate the team, play to its strengths, attack, attack, attack.
And when you give license the way you have to Messi, Tévez and company, you also liberate us. When your team rips apart the caution of opponents, we feel like children who all want to be attackers.
Your antics on the sideline personify this.
We are not fooled, Diego, by the gray suit and the polished shoes. We see through that formal attire to a man reliving his youth, a man of 49 who was the devil-may-care genius in 1986. A man who went to Germany for the last World Cup, dressed in a player’s jersey, cheerleading from the stands.
That enthusiasm reminds us that soccer is a simple game. Your team has superior attacking skills, so let it play to its nature.
It sounds, and looks, so obvious. Germany represents a real challenge, especially to your defense. Yet we’re not sure you care about any opposition. The further your team goes, the closer you get to stripping away the myth and mystique that team management is a science and that a manager can only succeed through years of study of the manual.
I don’t imagine you reading any books on how to be successful in your game. Having been on the streets of the villa miseria Fiorito, the slum you grew up in outside Buenos Aires, I can understand that books are hogwash to you.
A manual for anything written by outsiders would not have taken you out of that impoverished, but in some ways happy, place. Your skills did that. And even Englishmen who cursed the Hand of God goal you fisted in during the 1986 World Cup had to acknowledge the genius with which you outwitted six men to score a second in that game — the Goal of the Century.
Genius, playing to your own rules.
Still, when Grondona, the Argentine soccer federation president since before anyone had even heard of Maradona, turned to you as coach, we all flipped.
How could this work? How could a player who burned himself out on drugs, alcohol and an apparent inability to cope with life beyond the final whistle be the guide and mentor to players who appeared lost and disillusioned by their own national federation?
Better-placed critics, men who had led Argentina to its two World Cups, feared for their country and for you.
Many agreed with Daniel Arcucci, a columnist for La Nación, who wrote last year, “Maybe Maradona is risking too much, as always in his life — even his status as a myth.”
Arcucci wasn’t alone in that fear. None of us imagined what we are seeing now.
History is against your team going all the way.
You know, but probably do not care, that only two men have won the World Cup as a player and a coach. Mário Zagallo played for Brazil when it triumphed in 1958, and was the coach in 1970. Franz Beckenbauer captained Germany to the title in 1974, and was its manager in 1990.
What you are attempting is closer to Beckenbauer than Zagallo. Beckenbauer had no background on the sideline, no piece of paper verifying him as a tried and tested coach. Instead he had, and has, the aura of his status as his country’s greatest living player.
Zagallo was the opposite. An industrious winger in his time, steeped in the coaching ethos, he stepped in when Brazil’s federation fired João Saldanha weeks before the World Cup.
Saldanha was your type of guy, Diego. He loved irreverence; he debunked the coaching stereotypes. He let great players play. He shared with them a love of just being the best that a man could be.
You told us that your message to Messi was simply to say nobody ever told Maradona where to play, so you shouldn’t have to tell Messi where to play, either.
Interesting, because we thought there might be friction between the man who was Argentina’s most magical player and the only man since who might challenge that designation.
If that is another misconception, it’s time to say mea culpa, and mean it.
A version of this news analysis appeared in print on July 3, 2010, on page D6 of the New York edition.