Maradona’s Task: Harmony From Chaos
By ROB HUGHES
LONDON — The end of Diego Maradona’s worldwide ban from his game and the beginning of his greatest challenge, the World Cup in South Africa, are exactly 21 weeks apart.
The lapsed Argentine idol, marginalized since FIFA forbade him from any involvement in soccer after his foul outburst in a broadcast news conference in November, is free to resume as Argentina’s head coach this Friday.
He must marvel at the form his forwards are in at the moment. Lionel Messi scored an exquisite hat trick for Barcelona on Sunday, Carlos Tévez netted three goals for Manchester City on Monday, Gonzalo Higuaín kept up his scoring spree for Real Madrid over the weekend, and Sergio Agüero also scored for Atlético Madrid.
And the list of options for Argentina’s attack goes on. Diego Milito, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lisandro López and Hernán Crespo — the man who calls out “Remember me, I’m not too old” — seek to catch Maradona’s eye and win his favor.
Then there is Ángel di María, the dynamic scoring midfielder already a Maradona pick and very likely to be the next big purchase of the January transfer window in Europe. Di Maria is currently owned by Benfica of Portugal, but Manchester United has bid for him and Chelsea and Inter Milan are raising the stakes and the asking price for the 21-year-old’s coveted talents.
But here’s the rub. Form is fickle, goal scorers who are hot now might be using up their inspiration in the winter and blown by the summer.
With exactly five months between Friday and the World Cup kickoff on June 11, Maradona has to show he knows how to make sense and create harmony out of all that talent. He has to demonstrate that he is in control of his own volatile nature, and he must very quickly convince the most important people in his life — the players — that he can make a sum out of their very evident individual abilities.
All this presumes that, come June, Maradona will still be in charge of Argentina’s destiny.
It’s an amazing call because until he was appointed late in 2008, he had zero credibility as a coach. He was chosen, by the aging soccer executive Julio Grondona, out of desperation and sheer hope that former greatness as a player would rub off on the new generation.
The jury is out on that. Argentina, for all its skills, only scraped into this World Cup. Messi, undoubtedly the player of 2009 for his week-by-week brilliance with Barcelona, was forlorn and confused in Argentina’s confused and almost forlorn qualification campaign.
The team made it, in spite of Maradona’s whimsical uncertainty. He never picked the same team twice. One moment he described Agüero as God’s gift to the nation, and the next dropped him.
There were unproven press reports of Agüero’s cheating on his fiancée, Maradona’s younger daughter, Giannina, after Agüero was said to have left a Buenos Aires nightclub with a model.
If true, it would have been shades of Maradona’s own past before his marital break-up. If it was tittle-tattle, you would have expected an experienced national team coach to sort it out in-house.
But the rumors around any soccer camp, especially one where the coach’s authority is the stuff of so much incredulity, is bound to feed the media appetite for scandal. Maradona has known that since adolescence, and surely must have considered it when he accepted the challenge in middle age.
He thought he could do the job better than proven coaches, and — who knows? — he might prove himself right in five months.
However, it is not just reporters who get under his skin and try to get inside his mind. Last month, Juan Sebastián Verón, the senior player who had been recalled by Maradona to run the midfield, said on Radio La Red: “We are not among the candidates to win the World Cup.
“We need to find a squad, and then take 30 days to work with and shape that group. As time goes by, the issue of the selection remains unsolved. The message given by the coaching staff isn’t clear.
“It doesn’t look good to outsiders, and insiders feel insecure.”
The son of a former Argentine national team player, now himself a veteran of 14 years in his country’s colors, Verón was recalled by Maradona to give shape and know-how to the midfield. He tried to defend the coach from the worst of the media speculation around him, last year.
But now, knowing that time is pressing, Verón appears to be saying that if the talents are not taken in hand very soon, Argentina is headed for World Cup humiliation. He should know; Verón was a part of the national squad that went to the 2002 World Cup as favorite to win it and bombed out in the first round.
With that clock ticking, the attackers of Argentina have started the year as some of the most exciting on earth. Messi is always at it, for Barça where his record is an astonishing 99 goals and 45 assists in 186 games.
Tévez, who just two months ago despaired that his time had passed, is in the prime of sporting life. At 25, he has struck such a rich vein of form that he is on a run of seven goals from five games, and 15 in the first half of the season.
Higuaín, just 22, is in such fighting spirit that Real Madrid, for all its riches, dare not leave him out. Besides, Higuaín is 6 feet, or 1.83 meters, tall, and height is needed to compliment the diminutive geniuses of Argentina.
Maradona needs to convince the team. But his bosses must be tempted to cut him while there is still time.
A certain Guus Hiddink, proven World Cup winner with the Netherlands, South Korea and Australia, might be for hire after his latest adventure, with Russia, failed. If Maradona is not afraid, he should be.