When the Argentine Football Association was hunting for a new national team coach ten months ago, Diego Maradona’s name was nowhere to be seen.
The albiceleste were on the back of a poor run of form with just one win from six World Cup qualifiers, and the team needed new ideas to put them back on track.
The old-school style of the gruff Alfio Basile, now the Boca Juniors coach, clashed with the young generation of millionaire superstars that returned from Europe to represent the country.
The names suggested as possible candidates to replace Basile varied in profile and status. Maradona didn’t fit into any of the categories – with virtually no experience in coaching, a controversial past and a rocky relationship with AFA president Julio Grondona, El Diez was never in contention. That is, until he himself threw his hat into the arena.
In a matter of days, the situation turned on its head and Maradona was presented as the new Argentina coach. It was an enormous risk for AFA to take, for several reasons, not least of which was the possibility that Maradona’s legend could be tarnished.
Maradona’s achievements as a player need not be listed here. Many Argentine footballers, when asked about Diego, speak not so much of how great a player he was, but also how much he did for the country. It is only in those dimensions that Mardona can be understood.
“I’m not afraid my crown will fall,” Maradona declared at his presentation with to the media. “The Argentina team is a Rolls Royce that just needs a service job,” he claimed.
Ten months on, and in light of the 3-1 defeat at the hands of Brazil, it is clear that Maradona is not the engineer that Argentina needs.
Few duels in the world match the football rivalry between Brazil and Argentina. Last weekend’s game was not just another run-of-the-mill encounter. Brazil secured its qualification for next year’s World Cup with the win, embarrassing Argentina in front of its own fans, and seriously damaged their enemy’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup.
Argentina made simple mistakes in defense, showed little imagination in attack, and ran out of ideas the second they conceded a goal. They handed Brazil the game on a plate.
Yet one of the most respected voices in the national game, the Huracán coach Ángel Cappa, criticized Brazil for playing like a “small team.” Given the way Cappa understands the game, he is right. Brazil kept men behind the ball and never dared to attack. “I’ve never seen a Brazil side whose fullbacks didn’t pass the half way line,” Argentina right back Javier Zanetti said after the defeat. The problem was, Brazil didn’t need to attack.
The approach of Brazil’s coach, widely known as Dunga, is widely considered as ‘anti-football’, with the only importance being the result. To somebody like Cappa, with his purist vision of how the game should be played, this is heresy.
It is also in conflict with Maradona’s dream of how his team would play football. The real problem for Argentina ahead of its vital game Wednesday night with Paraguay is that Maradona still doesn’t know how to achieve his dream.
In Leo Messi, Argentina has arguably the best player in the world, the kind of player who makes the difference in a World Cup final. Messi needs the structure of a team like Barcelona, however, to produce the form that has won him so many plaudits.
With Argentina, there are too many expectations riding on him to win the game by himself. At Barcelona, Messi scores the team’s goals, finishing a team move. With Argentina, he has to create the move, and finish it himself.
Argentina needs to find a style that suits both Messi and the current group of players, who are amongst the best in the world. Maradona’s lack of experience means that when he experiments with tactics or players and he sees no immediate improvement, he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions to give the process of building a team the patience it requires.
On Wednesday night, Argentina will play Paraguay in Asunción, where it hasn’t won in 12 years. With the added pressure of the poor performance and shocking result against Brazil and the media’s criticism of Maradona, the team needs a win to avoid missing out on next year’s world cup.
Argentina’s fate is in its own hands. If they win their remaining three games, Maradona can start planning for next year in South Africa, where the World Cup will be held.
The problems that have accompanied the qualifying stage will be instantly deemed irrelevant, as Maradona will be judged only by his performance in South Africa. If he doesn’t guide the country there, however, then Maradona’s crown will have fallen.
(The game starts at 8pm in Buenos Aires.)
*Joel Richards is an English freelance sports journalist and producer based in Buenos Aires. After three years at Real Madrid TV, he moved to Argentina and has written and worked for Diario AS (Spain), The Guardian, FourFourTwo, When Saturday Comes, BBC and FIFA.