For whatever reasons, whatever the game, great players don’t often go on to become great coaches. Perhaps on their retirement from playing, these athletes have little more to prove, or to earn.
In soccer, the top players who have tried to make the move to management have stumbled quickly from the path to managerial greatness. The shortlist of real successes in the last couple of decades, world-class players who have had prolonged periods as top-class managers, wouldn’t go far beyond Dutch immortal Johan Cruyff and Scotsman Kenny Dalglish. In soccer, the ‘greatness’ tag is usually conferred on players of individual flair and genius, and they may be challenged both by the day-to-day grind of management and the need to coach men who are, for the most part, so obviously their own inferiors on the playing field.
So the biggest surprise about Diego Maradona’s tenure as manager of his native Argentina is not that he has been unimpressive so far, but that he got the job in the first place. (His only previous experience was an absolutely disastrous period in club management in the mid-1990s.) Only slightly less surprising is the fact that he is still doing the job after 18 months.
Argentina, traditionally a powerhouse to rival Brazil in South American soccer, lost five of the 17 games they have played under Maradona, and nearly failed to qualify for this summer’s World Cup in South Africa. International soccer typically involves just a few games scattered across the year — often qualifiers for major tournaments — then occasionally the high intensity and drama of the final tournaments themselves. The World Cup finals will test Maradona as he has not been tested before as a manager, and conventional wisdom suggests that if Argentina succeed, they will do so in spite of their manager rather than because of him.
Nonetheless, the whole world will be watching Maradona, and most of us will be supporting him, for at least three reasons: because no other man so perfectly signifies the magic of the World Cup; because the tabloid decadence of his life cries out so loudly for a new tabloid redemption; and because he will be managing a young man who is perhaps his most plausible successor over the last two decades as the world’s greatest and most beloved player. All three of these reasons are suffused with political significance that gives the lie to the notion that soccer’s politics are simply about crude nationalism. Let’s take them one at a time.
First comes Maradona’s history in the tournament. Many Argentines were disappointed when, aged 17, he was left out of the national squad for the 1978 World Cup finals, which Argentina hosted and won. In retrospect his omission means he doesn’t carry the whiff of the fascistic generals, an odor that hangs over that tournament, which they used as a global showcase for authoritarian Argentina, still in the midst of its ‘dirty war’ of disappearance, torture and murder against the left. In the World Cup of 1982, with the military still in charge of his country, Maradona played for an Argentine side that had the misfortune to meet truly great teams from Brazil and Italy in the second round, and Argentina were duly dispatched.
Four years later, in 1986, with civilian rule restored to Argentina, came Maradona’s World Cup. Most famous was his ‘single-handed’ destruction of England in the quarter-final, first with the infamous ‘hand of God’ goal. (The referee missed him slapping the ball goal-ward as he leapt to head it, and his own post-game response said the goal had come “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”) His second goal established forever the identity of the divinity: it was the climax of a weaving 60-yard run past at least half the England team, and it routinely tops the ‘greatest goal ever’ polls. Much was made of this game being revenge for Argentina’s deadly humiliation by Britain in the 1983 Falklands/Malvinas war. But the anti-imperialist pleasure of seeing England defeated resonates far beyond Argentine shores: the roof practically lifted off the Dublin pub where I watched that game. And a statue commemorating his goal — the good one, not the hand-ball — stands outside the Azteca stadium in Mexico City.
In 1990, carrying an injury and with a weaker team around him, Maradona took his team to the final with sheer force of will. The biggest shock came in the semi-final, played against the host nation, Italy. At that stadium in Naples you wouldn’t have known Italy was the ‘home’ team: Maradona was at the pinnacle of his club career with Napoli, having just led them to a second Italian title. The Neapolitans, long used to being despised by Italians from Rome and points further north, and with a port city’s typical identification with migration’s scattered seeds, cheered their local hero against their country. But Argentina went on to lose the final in Rome, to the more clinical West Germans. Four years later in the US-based World Cup finals Maradona’s fall was complete: he was sent home after only two games for testing positive for ephedrine, which he later said he was using to lose weight.
Maradona was a complete mess, which takes us to reason number 2 for wishing him well. Unlike his only competitor for the title of Best Ever, Pelé, who has somewhat sullied his reputation with careful ‘brand management’, a shelfload of autobiographies and an incessantly bland global persona, Maradona has gone about his sullying in the proper, over-the-top and ultimately pitiable fashion. During his playing spell in Naples he got mixed up with the Camorra and built up a cocaine habit that got him banned from soccer in 1991 for 15 months when he should have still been near the height of his career. He never returned to anything approaching his past greatness. The ephedrine mess of 1994 signaled a battle with obesity that culminated in gastric-bypass surgery in 2005. He spent a spell in a psychiatric hospital in 2007 for his boozing, after which he remarked: “They were all crazy in there. One said he was Napoleon and they didn’t believe him. I said I was Maradona and they didn’t believe me either!” Heart troubles and recurring rumors of his demise put Maradona firmly in the category of ‘Yes, Still Living Legend’.
He is inclined to attribute his survival to the help of Cuban medicine, and since his playing days he has emerged as a friend of Latin American revolutionaries. He sports a Fidel Castro tattoo on his left leg — not normally a prime tattoo location, but never forget that this is the world’s greatest left leg. Che is on his right shoulder. He calls Hugo Chavez “un gigante” and calls himself a Chavista. He has hosted friendly chats with such heroes on his own Argentina chat show. In 2007, on Chavez’s TV show, he declared: “I hate everything that comes from the United States. I hate it with all my strength.” Perhaps it is no coincidence that his team’s heaviest defeat during his time as Argentine manager came in Evo Morales’ Bolivia. (Mind you, the altitude in La Paz gets to many visiting teams, and Argentina had no problems against Chavez’s Venezuela.)
Despite this anti-imperialist status, however, the soap-opera of his life continues. Every time Maradona touches down in Italy, it seems, the police confiscate some valuable item (a watch, an earring) to put in the kitty toward his alleged $50 million Italian tax bill. And just last week he was in hospital for emergency surgery after his own dog apparently bit through his upper lip.
Despite his apparent inability to manage his own life, Maradona was raised up to one of the world’s most high-pressure sports jobs, management of a quadrennial World Cup favourite, on a cloud of popular love in his home country. This love, however, has been mixed with cynicism from the world’s media, who eagerly awaited his failure. Qualification for the World Cup finals is typically a formality for Argentina. After struggling until the last match to accomplish this usually simple task, Maradona told the assembled press pack: “Suck it and keep on sucking it…. This is for all Argentines, minus the journalists.”
His team’s chances of doing anything substantial with that qualification in South Africa this summer rest on the narrow shoulders of Lionel Messi, aka Messidona, who for the last few months has been playing soccer at a level not seen since Diego himself, indeed perhaps not seen ever. Like Maradona, Messi was a tiny, working-class boy in Argentina — perhaps a notch or two up the social scale from the slum-reared Diego — who probably would not have even reached Maradona’s 5’5” if he hadn’t moved to Barcelona at age 13 to get growth-hormone treatment, and to play football for FC Barcelona (also Maradona’s first European club, in the early 1980s.). At 22, Messi now stands a full 5’7”. The similarities with Maradona don’t end there: though Messi is scrawnier than the stocky Diego, he has similar strength, shown as he shrugs off much larger defenders; his low center of gravity gives him great balance even as opponents kick him; he can run at high speed with the ball seemingly stuck to his feet; he has great vision and feel for his teammates’ presence; and his deadly left foot can pass and shoot with equal skill. In some ways he is already clearly God’s superior: his right foot has more control than Maradona’s did, and he’s a better header of the ball. (If you’re unfamiliar, do a Youtube search: you won’t regret it.)
The only comparison I can think of in American sports would be a football running-back like OJ Simpson in his prime, whose starts, stops and feints would send opponents sprawling helplessly as he danced over, around and past them. Of course OJ’s retirement years make Maradona look like Jimmy Carter.
The only worry for Argentines is that Lionel Messi has not yet found consistent greatness in the international team, though he did help his country to a 2008 Olympic gold medal. (The Olympics are generally not seen as an important soccer tournament.) In the 2006 World Cup, during which he turned 19, he was recovering from injury but made telling contributions as a substitute. Incredibly, he was left on the bench as Argentina lost in a quarter-final to Germany.
To date Messi’s most vital magic has been for his club team. And that club is arguably the world’s favorite, Barcelona, a unique sporting institution. Although it plays in the Spanish league, its fans (who own and operate the club) would insist that it is a Catalan, and indeed a global, institution before it is a ‘Spanish’ club. In 1937, as Civil War raged at home, its players toured North America as sporting ambassadors from the Republic, and fascists bombed the club’s offices. The club was and is at the centre of oppressed Catalan identity, and its games against Franco’s favorite team, Real [Royal] Madrid, have for decades been freighted with political meaning, like the Civil War in reprise. In Spain the game between the arch-rivals is called El Clásico, and there are few neutrals.
Virtually uniquely in the world of soccer, Barcelona players have never worn corporate advertising on their distinctive blue and red striped shirts. In 2006, the club announced its first-ever logo deal, in which, reversing the usual arrangement, Barcelona would pay UNICEF a percentage of the club’s income to carry the UNICEF name on the shirts.
In short, Messi and Barcelona seem to represent all that is good and wholesome about soccer, where good and wholesome are mostly in short supply. It is instructive to contrast Messi with Real Madrid’s top player, the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo. A preening pretty boy with a lucrative modeling career on the side, Ronaldo is enormously skillful, and scores many goals, but he never seems to deliver the killer pass to a teammate. Mop-topped Messi, by contrast, has almost as many assists as goals. Ronaldo, at 25, has already changed clubs twice in deals worth about $150 million. Messi is still with the club he joined as a boy, a club whose coach, the Catalan Pep Guardiola, himself joined the club at age 13 and rose through its ranks, first as a player and then as a coach.
As El Clásico kicks off this Saturday night in Barcelona, the teams find themselves locked in an incredibly tight battle for the Spanish league title, and an international TV audience in the tens of millions will largely be cheering for the team-work, intricate passing and self-evident virtues of Messi, Guardiola and Barcelona against the expensively assembled ‘Galacticos’ of Real Madrid.
Sadly, it is not and is never that simple. Madrid and Barcelona are the richest teams in the world, but they have left the rest of Spanish soccer trailing in the distance and many other clubs there are in deep financial difficulty. Like top teams in England, the Clásico pairing themselves have mountains of debt. Football in parts of Europe has been yet another financial bubble, inflated by TV revenue and seemingly endless cash injections from super-rich men looking for a plaything or a money-laundering operation. The pressure for success at such clubs is enormous and they will spend themselves deeper into debt to achieve it, Barcelona included. The fear for the World Cup is that players from these top European clubs will have nothing left in the tank when they get to South Africa. Messi himself goes into this Saturday’s crucial domestic game against Madrid only four days after his glorious four-goal dismantling of English club Arsenal on Tuesday, to put Barcelona into the semi-final stage of the most important club competition of all, the annual European Champions League.
For all the prestige, global television audiences and footballing immortality the World Cup can bestow, international soccer is very much the poor relation of the club game. It would not be surprising to see success in South Africa for countries whose players aren’t drawn from the pinnacle of European soccer. Argentina will face three such opponents in the group stage in June: Nigeria, Greece and South Korea. With Messi in his April form, and with many other top players in the team, Maradona’s men should have no trouble reaching the next phase. But April form is not necessarily June form. If they fail, Maradona will go from God to Devil, and Messi will be one of his fallen angels.