Diego Maradona: Argentina's Pampered Child
Once again, four long years of anticipation have gone by and another World Cup has come to a close. The sad reality of unfulfilled expectations has begun to set in, and many hopes and dreams will now have to be postponed until 2014.
But the past is past, and as the Argentine saying goes, "a llorar a la iglesia" (go cry at church about it). It's time to start looking toward the future, which is quite likely what many footballing nations are doing right now: Evaluating their recent pasts and making plans for the future.
As concerns Argentina, the big question on nearly everyone's mind right now is: What will happen with Maradona? Will he continue as manager of the national team?
The answer is, "yes, most likely." In fact, there's only one person in the world who can decide otherwise, and that's Maradona himself.
Why? Because the same interests that brought him to the national team in the first place will very likely maintain him, despite his failure. Though his contract is technically over, and the AFA has no formal obligations with him, there is much more at stake here than just the AFA and Julio Grondona's reputation, or even Argentina's footballing prestige; there's big money and politics. The head of the AFA may very well want Maradona out of the national team, but his hands are tied; there are higher powers at work here.
A catalog of shenanigans
When Maradona was appointed as manager back in mid 2009, a debate ensued as to who his coaching staff would be. Maradona wanted an old pal of his, Oscar Ruggeri, as his assistant coach. But Ruggeri has come into conflict with Grondona repeatedly, so as expected, the AFA's answer was an absolute no—anyone but Ruggeri. Maradona tried his hardest and insisted repeatedly on the matter, but Grondona would not budge.
It was quite plain to all that Maradona needed assistance in his new job, as he had literally no experience as a football manager. Grondona insisted that Carlos Salvador Bilardo (Argentina's manager during the 1986 and 1990 World Cups) be assigned as his tactical adviser. But Maradona, still quite annoyed over the Ruggeri affair, insisted on picking out his own assistants, and thus surrounded himself by two close friends (Alejandro Mancuso and Héctor Enrique), both former players with little or no coaching experience. Thus, Carlos Salvador Bilardo, one of Argentine football's most knowledgeable and experienced tacticians, was completely ignored by Maradona throughout the entire World Cup.
But Maradona's troubles at AFA wouldn't end there; he also engaged in public disputes with former Albiceleste teammate Sergio Batista, now his colleague and manager of the Argentine national U-20 team, and with "Humbertito" Grondona, Julio's son and coordinator of the national team youth divisions.
In September of 2009, Argentina was on the verge of losing its spot at the World Cup, and after a 6-1 humiliation in La Paz, Bolivia, and a 2-0 defeat in Quito, Ecuador, Maradona was to face his toughest test yet: Brazil, the eternal rivals.
Maradona was particularly concerned with the "atmosphere" at the River Plate stadium, (where Argentina plays home matches), accusing the stadium of being too "cold" and "unwelcoming." It's a very spacious stadium with a running track around the playing field, which means that the fans are not too close to the action. And when the national team plays at Estadio Monumental, it's often the families with children that attend, and not the rowdy football fans.
In light of all these issues, Maradona set out to prepare his "spiritual strategy." He insisted that Argentina face Brazil in Rosario, where the Brazilians would no doubt "feel the fury" of the Argentine home field advantage.
Julio Grondona, desperate to please Maradona, exerted all of his influence in Conmebol and got an authorization for Argentina to play in the "Gigante de Arroyito" stadium in Rosario, despite such short notice.
The outcome? A 3-1 victory for Brazil.
Since then, Argentina have returned to their beloved "Estadio Monumental" (River Plate stadium), where they have never been defeated.
In the end, those agonizing World Cup qualifiers culminated in one fateful match in Montevideo, where the Albicelestes managed to scrape out a 1-0 win that proved good enough to earn them the fourth Conmebol spot in the World Cup.
In the post-match press conference, Maradona, quite visibly relieved and eager to get revenge on all those who had criticised him and his team, lashed out angrily against the media with such obscenity and venom that FIFA was forced to slap him with a two-month ban on taking part in all football related activities, and a 25,000 CHF fine.
Prior to the World Cup, Argentina had organized a friendly match (one of the few) in Dubai against a local team, but it fell through when the investment group who was organizing the match (Investment Dalport) failed to deposit 500,000 dollars. Maradona reacted angrily at this sudden change of plans, and blamed the AFA for having "cancelled" this important appointment. The AFA publicly defended itself by saying it was not to blame; it had never dealt with this investment group before. Without the money, the match could not be played.
As it turns out Diego Maradona had himself made initial contact with the mysterious investment group and passed on the offer to the AFA. There have even been rumors that Maradona had some personal financial interests attached to the match, although none of those rumours have been confirmed.
With the utmost urgency, the AFA scrambled to put together another friendly for Argentina, and it succeeded at booking one against South Africa in Pretoria. But Maradona, still rather annoyed by the Dubai affair, said no. There would be no more friendly matches prior to the World Cup.
In the days leading up to the World Cup, thousands of "barrabravas," or Argentine hooligans, disembarked in South Africa—an event event which went largely unnoticed for most of the world, but became quite the scandal back in Argentina.
Many questions were asked as to how these fans managed to afford the trip to South Africa, and it became quite evident that someone had sponsored them. The primary suspects (Julio Grondona, Carlos Bilardo, Diego Maradona, and the Argentine national government) all declared innocent on the matter.
But somehow, in the midst of the shuffle of accusations and denials, Grondona let out that "he had warned Bilardo and Maradona against getting involved with the 'barras,'" and that "they've had ties to the 'barras' since 1986."
Maradona has always been somewhat of a superstitious character, and this World Cup was certainly no exception.
He became quite obsessed with giving press conferences at the Pretoria stadium press room and nowhere else. It's customary for managers to give their pre-match conferences in the very stadium where the match will be played, but Maradona would have none of it. He got the AFA to solicit a special permission for him alone that allowed him to hold all of his press conferences at the Pretoria stadium press room.
This was no doubt somewhat of an inconvenience, as it involved a lot of extra travelling, considering Argentina never played a single match in Pretoria.
Lo and behold, come the quarterfinal round, the Pretoria stadium was closed and would no longer be used during the remainder of the World Cup. Maradona and the AFA tried desperately to get permission to use the press room anyway, but to no avail—Argentina would face Germany without the aid of its good luck ritual.
There would, however, be a compromise. Argentina had been drawn to face Germany in their away outfits, and Maradona was quick to recall that they had lost their last two World Cup encounters against Germany in those same dark-blue away jerseys (the 1990 final and the 2006 quarterfinal). Once again he insisted doggedly, and this time he got his way. They played in their classic, lucky, sky-blue and white jerseys...and lost in spectacular fashion.
German manager Joachim Löw, on the other hand, didn't seem terribly concerned with his team's jerseys. Perhaps he was too busy studying his rival, and mapping out his road to victory.
However, the straw that came closest to breaking Julio Grondona's inexhaustible patience was Maradona's excessive verbal rudeness and impertinence at press conferences in South Africa. Although Maradona has clearly been a marketing bonanza for the AFA, he's also been a diplomatic disaster.
What most bothered Grondona and much of the Argentine public, was the way Maradona unnecessarily criticized Argentine referee Hector Baldassi at the Argentina-Germany pre-match press conference. Most people felt Baldassi had performed quite acceptably, and they were surprised by Maradona's unexpected, "off the topic" criticisms of his own countryman.
What the future holds
When one reviews each of these points, and adds to them the fact that Argentina has performed so poorly on the pitch in spite of a wealth of talent, the balance must be negative. So, how can this star-crossed affair between the AFA and Argentina's greatest football idol possibly continue?
Well, the AFA may have no choice but to make it continue. After all, Maradona is now backed by one of the AFA's most important business partners: The Argentine national government.
This government has turned football into a key factor in their "populist" political agenda. Just over a year ago, they cut a deal with the AFA called "fútbol para todos" (football for all), wherein the government paid for the domestic football TV rights (about 200 million dollars worth), and made the matches freely available on a state-sponsored channel.
Despite such high costs for a country that can barely cover its basic infrastructural needs, the Argentine government understands that football "moves the masses." And what better ally could a government possibly have than the all-time No. 1 footballing icon?
It seems altogether unlikely that the AFA will exclude Maradona given the fact that the Argentine president has asked him to continue, the team has received a hero's welcome despite its failure, and many players have expressed their desire for him to stay as well.
The choice will almost certainly lie with Maradona himself.
Will the pain of defeat be too much for him to bear? Or will he listen to his daughters, his friends, those who support him, and carry on as the national team manager?
The next few weeks may be crucial in answering those questions.
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