Argentina Needs a Hand of God
I remember watching the 1986 World Cup Quarter Final match between England and Argentina. The tournament was in Mexico, but it might well have been held right here in Mohammadpur, Dhaka, such was the passion and fervor with which it was being followed in my neighbourhood. I was seven and barely understood football let alone the drama and craze that go behind watching an Argentina match in Bangladesh. But I was old enough to discern that one man amongst the 22 had a special almost god like status. While others passed the ball, he cajoled it around the field. While others shot with power, he finessed it and made it do tricks never seen before. And oh, he also managed to score a goal. With his hand, nonetheless. Yes, Diego Armando Maradona was all that his fans (and detractors) made him out to be, and much more. In Bangladesh, he was a demigod, a source of divine inspiration that broke the monotony of our everyday lives as we lived vicariously through the boy from the slums of Buenos Aires and his meteoric rise to a global football god. But this article isn't about Maradona's apotheosis, nor is it about his stature in world football as a player. This article is about Maradona the coach of the Argentinean Football team and how is spell off the field means a historical debacle on it.
First the facts, and they aren't pretty. The two-time world champions have lost their last three World Cup qualifiers, and will need to claim positive results against Peru and Uruguay in order to remain with a chance. Their destiny is likely to be determined in the final round of qualifying when they face rivals Uruguay in the River Plate derby at the Centenario stadium in Montevideo. Traditionally, Maradona's side has struggled at the venue, and the last time the teams met there for a World Cup qualifier Uruguay won 1-0. Realistically, fifth place and a playoff with the fourth-placed team from the CONCACAF region could be their only possibility of reaching the finals.
But what is really frightening is that Argentina should never have been in this position in the first place. If Alfio Basile, Maradona's predecessor, had stayed on as the coach of the national team, there's little doubt in my mind at least that Argentina would have already qualified for the tournament. Two wins in six qualifiers just isn't good enough for a team with the potential of Argentina. Argentina possesses too many world class players to miss out on South Africa. If they fail to qualify for the World Cup it would be the first time since 1970.
The worst part of the problem is that Maradona has dug his own grave by some really erratic selections and strategies. He has excluded several in-form European-based players including Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain, Mauro Zarate of Lazio and both Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso of Inter Milan. He also hasn't presented high-quality strikers like Diego Milito and Lisando Lopez with opportunities. But perhaps the strangest thing was that he included in his squad Martin Palermo and Rolando Schiavi, 35 and 36 years of age, respectively, for the matches against Brazil and Paraguay. Many criticised his choice of including two unknown Velez Sarsfield defenders, Nicolas Otamendi and Sebastian Dominguez, in the starting eleven against Brazil as well. The former genius who was known for his football acumen and judgment on the field is now lampooned as clueless off it. Could things get possibly worse for Argentina? Yes it can.
The truth is, Maradona may be a great motivator and an erstwhile Einstein on the football pitch, but he is definitely not a coach, not even a mediocre one. Before the ill-fated match with Brazil where Argentina got thrashed 3-1 at home, he admitted that he would like to actually play the match, and maybe this distracted him and he was unable to concentrate on coaching the side. Maradona doesn't have any idea of how to coach a team, and the tactics he adopted in the games against Brazil and Paraguay were proof of this. Maradona should have gained coaching experience with an Argentine club, maybe his beloved Boca Juniors, before being appointed the head coach of the national side. An assistant coach role would have better suited him.
His players sense his failings as well. According to reports from the local press, several players in the squad can't see eye to eye with Maradona. Apparently there have been all kinds of problems, and conflicts between different players and the coach. Results haven't gone Argentina's way, and it seems that the pressure has gotten to Diego and the entire squad. Problems have arisen for all kinds of things, with one of the main concerns being that the players can't understand what Maradona wants on the field. They're not the only ones.
Argentina's pain has crossed oceans. The team's huge Bangladeshi fan base cannot envisage a World Cup without their favourite team. Ever since I could remember, every World Cup would see houses and cars draped either in Argentinean or Brazilian flag. Living rooms would be demarcated by national boundaries and Brazilian samba would be pitted against Argentinean tango. Will the Brazilian supporters dance alone this time? There is still a glimmer of hope and maybe Argentina can squeeze in at the very last minute. But for that to happen, Maradona has to reach out into his bag of tricks just like he did more than twenty years ago at the Azteca Stadium. Only another Hand of God can save this team from peril.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009