Exit Maradona

John Doyle
The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Diego Maradona reads a statement in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, July 28, 2010. The Argentine Soccer Association announced Tuesday that Maradona's contract as coach of Argentina's national soccer team would not be renewed. AP

And so he exits as he arrived: Defiant, cocksure, more than a little mad, and worshipped.

Calling Diego Armando Maradona a soccer god is not idle exaggeration. There is after all a Church of Maradona with a reported membership of 100,000 people. Now, however, Maradona is no longer the manager of Argentina’s national soccer team. Last Tuesday, in Buenos Aires, the Argentine Football Association voted unanimously not to renew his contract.

At the recent World Cup, Maradona reclaimed worldwide attention and considerable affection, thanks largely to his outsize personality and vigorous, endearing sideline support for his players. But the harsh reality of results could not be escaped – talent-laden Argentina crashed out of the quarter-finals in South Africa, losing 4-0 to Germany.

The immediate aftermath of the defeat in many ways captured Maradona’s bizarre status and the ceaselessly conflicting emotions that have always surrounded him. Television cameras caught him in a long embrace with his daughter. He looked in pain. Beside them, Germany manager Joachim Loew paced and waited to shake Maradona’s hand.

Only Maradona could indulge in such showboating and sentimentality and get away with it. Only Maradona could make the manager of the winning team wait, and wait with respect.

In Argentina, there was an outpouring of gratitude as the team arrived home. Somehow, the early exit was not seen as a disaster. Many in Argentina saw it as yet another strange incident in Maradona’s spectacularly strange life and career. And yet, when he the axe fell on Tuesday, pragmatism came to the fore. God he might be, but this god could not play office politics.

In June of last year, while in Buenos Aires to see Argentina play Colombia in a World Cup qualifying game, my host and guide was Carlos Oscar Pachame, a legendary former player, coach and pundit on soccer in Argentina. Pachame had been assistant to Carlos Bilardo, who was Argentina’s manager when the country won the World Cup in 1986 – thanks in part of Maradona’s notorious “Hand of God” goal and others scored with his sublime skills.

Pachame explained that when Maradona was appointed by Argentine Football Association president Julio Grondona in 2008, the deal was, being a novice, Maradona would have Bilardo at his side for advice (the team would have a “coach” in Maradona and Bilardo was given the title “general manager”).

But soon it was clear Maradona was not inclined to take advice from anyone.

Pachame, obviously in Bilardo’s camp but dutifully respectful of Maradona, gave me to understand, with a series of shrugs, smiles and joking remarks, that he, Bilardo and Grondona were furious that Maradona had appointed his own backroom staff and was ignoring both Bilardo and the terms of his contract.

At that point, Argentina’s qualification for the 2010 World Cup was in doubt. The team had achieved ties with Peru and Paraguay and been embarrassingly thrashed 6-1 by Bolivia. There was muted hostility toward Maradona.

He couldn’t seem to settle on a team. His tactical sense was primitive or non-existent. Eventually, he would pick a total of 100 players to take part in Argentina’s campaign. Always, he made his own decisions and consulted no one. When Argentina finally squeaked into the World Cup, no one complained. Publicly, anyway.

Maradona’s status in Argentina’s is almost unimaginable to Canadians. A great player – perhaps the greatest of his age – a poor kid from tough neighbourhood, he enjoyed his wealth and fame with gusto. Didn’t give a damn about niceties. Mixed with mobsters in Italy and developed a friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and later Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela.

But what makes him transcend any other famous sporting figure is the fact he almost died, and returned from near-death as defiant as ever.

In April of 2004, he was rushed to hospital in terrible health – obese, seemingly drug-addled and unable to breathe. At one point during those days a news report said he had died. He hadn’t. He recovered, went on an eating binge and declared he wanted to live in Havana.

Soon, he was back in hospital again. In 2007, when he entered a clinic for treatment of acute hepatitis, it again reported that he’d died. A TV station carried a black banner on the screen for hours. He recovered, again. Some in Argentina believe he did indeed die and came back from the dead. The hand of God plucked from the other side, and brought him back to grace the earth.

In the Latin, intensely Catholic country that is Argentina, Maradona is someone who can, literally, be worshipped. In Argentina, he is an icon on a level with revolutionary Che Guevara and political legend Eva Peron. (But, even better than them, he died and returned.)

He was clearly an inspirational coach at the 2010 World Cup. Players admired him, and his visceral devotion to the team was obviously authentic. But what he lacked, in the end, was any tactical nous.

Argentina had no midfield, no playmaker to control the ball and facilitate the onward rush of Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez. Maradona had no sense of the field, the space on it. He relied on guts, he had no plan. And, being a god, he was not going to ask the men who were, in truth, his bosses (Grondona and Bilardo).

The end played out in melodrama, but predictably so – Maradona saying he was keen to keep his job, he also saying he would refuse if the Argentine Football Association dismissed even one of his staff.

He declined to submit. He wanted to be boss, to the end. And he learned that even gods have bosses who can fire them. But he’ll back, somehow.

He came back from the dead, didn’t he?

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