Maradona: He could play, but can he coach?

Maradona: He could play, but can he coach?

By Stephen Wade, AP Sports Writer

BEIJING — Doubts about Argentina will be stronger than ever at this year’s World Cup, mainly because of Diego Maradona, the coach who has struggled in almost every match to get quality play from some of the best footballers in the world.

Most still wonder if Maradona can coach, and after taking over in November 2008, the evidence is that he can’t.

But never underestimate the poor Buenos Aires street kid, originally known as “El Peluza” — literally “lint” — who eventually came to be known as “El Pibe de Oro” — The Golden Boy. He’s survived drug addiction, gone out with beautiful women, hosted a popular TV show and, in 1986, brought Argentina its second World Cup title.

This has made him a near-god in Argentina. But there are signs Argentines are beginning to tire of him and they will only multiply if he fails to deliver a World Cup title in South Africa, or at least comes close with an artful style to match talented players he has like Lionel Messi and Juan Sebastian Veron.

Maradona is the classic “picaro” character of 16th century Spanish literature, a scoundrel who lives by his wits and rebels against the establishment. It has often cost him, but it has also made him a populist hero, whether it’s dodging a multimillion unpaid tax bill from his playing days in Italy or getting kicked out of the 1994 World Cup after testing positive for a cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs.

The Argentine media has been on Maradona’s case since Nov. 4, 2008 — the day he became coach after taking over from Alfio Basile, who stepped down a few weeks earlier. Basile had replaced Jose Pekerman, the thoughtful, bookish coach who resigned after taking Argentina to the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals.

Maradona had no major coaching experience when he stepped in and journalists immediately began tearing apart his team selection and tactics. It reached its worst when Argentina lost three straight matches in World Cup qualifying late in 2009, meaning the team needed to win its last two games to advance to South Africa. They did — 2-1 in Buenos Aires against Peru and 1-0 four days later against Uruguay in Montevideo.

Minutes after qualifying, Maradona let loose on TV with a torrent of profanities aimed at his critics — mostly journalists. He declined to apologize despite eventually being banned for two months by FIFA and slapped with a fine of almost $25,000.

“I was getting it off my chest, and I don’t regret it,” Maradona said shortly after his tirade. “I gave my mother a kiss on the forehead and told her: ‘If I was wrong I ask your forgiveness, but nobody else.’

“I apologize to the ladies, but not to those who talk about football on television,” Maradona added. “What I said was also very late — outside family viewing hours.”

Maradona has never been afraid to attack the powerful.

One of his first decisions was to replace defender Javier Zanetti as captain, naming Javier Mascherano instead. Zanetti is Argentina’s most experienced player and, though he played briefly for Maradona, he has not been called up for recent matches.

Maradona has also had running battle with midfield playmaker Juan Ramon Riquelme, the leader of the 2006 team but absent since Maradona took over.

Julio Grondona, the head of the Argentine federation who hand-picked Maradona, said after making his choice that “we have the security of excellence.”

He meant Diego Maradona and the cast that surrounds him.

The World Cup will tell.

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