As El Diego trades in his party lifestyle for the white lines of the technical area, I went in search of the people who his appointment will affect the most, the fans.
The beers are flowing in a blue and white corner of West London and everybody is more than happy to talk about "the biggest thing to come out of Argentina since the tango.’" Nobody, however, is chatting about founding a church in honor of Terry Butcher.
Federico Macri sits awaiting the on screen arrival of the man who gave him the greatest moment of his life, when Diego lifted the World Cup in Mexico 22 years ago. No mean feat on Maradona’s part, Federico is only 19.
“He is simply the greatest player the world has ever seen, he was at the centre of a great period of Argentinian football. Winners in 1986 and runners-up in 1990, true moments of glory for our nation.” Gushes young Federico.
Should Diego’s appointment really surprise us? Should anything to do with the pint-sized marvel surprise anyone anymore? His latest post is far more comprehendible to the amassed Argentinian throng than giving a foreign coach the run for the national team. Sebastian Folino explains that while Diego would not have been his first choice, it is a far more palatable decision than hiring a foreigner.
“It’s unthinkable to employ a foreign coach. I try not to judge Maradona but he’s not a great example for the people, I don’t think he is the right person for the job. However, with Argentines in the top jobs in our league there’s plenty of other candidates before going abroad. It’s impossible, it’s like in Italy or Spain, you would not get a foreigner in charge.” That’s me said Folino, mind you if it means beating Germany I’ll live with it for now.
Diego’s press conferences may not have been the circus that many expected but he has still shown that a single gesticulation or raised eyebrow can cut straight through an interpreter to get his point across. No wonder the nation’s press clamour of a piece of him having grown accustom to the dour speculate of Fabio/Steve/Sven dribbling into a microphone for half hour intervals at a time.
The calm assuredness Maradona carries himself gives a nod to the Roy Keane school of management. Whether it be giving simple straight forward answers whilst under provocation to revert to his on-pitch persona, or sitting snug with his arms folded under a Tennants Lager advertising hoarding while the game unfolds.
It was at one of Keane’s old stomping grounds this week that Maradona gave us a rare recent glimpse of him at his eccentric and mesmerising best. Pausing a training session to get down on his hands and knees to help retrieve Fernando Gago’s Saint Christopher medallion. The item was eventually found by 13-year-old Celtic trainee Adam Brown who was hoisted aloft by the same arms that got their hands on the World Cup in 1986. This moment gave Glasgow yet another fond memory of Maradona after the city witnessed his first international goal 34 years earlier.
After the match, in which he twisted up such heavyweights as Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish and John Wark, high praise came from Jock Stein, “He’s 5ft 5in but he’s 12ft tall on talent.”
In his first game as boss, Maradona set Argentina out to play the way they know best, lots of languid passing around the middle of the park before an increase in tempo in the third period and a killer ball. At its best it produces results like Cambiasso’s goal against Serbia and Montenegro at the 2006 World Cup. It was from one such move that gave us the only goal of the game.
But the Argentines in the bar were not getting too carried away with the defeat of Scotland and as exiled fan Augustin Martinez put it, the real battles for Diego and his boys are still in the post;
“ Not many back home will be interested in the Scotland game, too many were players missing. The real test is the World Cup qualifier against Paraguay, a tough game for sure.”
Despite being so fond of Maradona, Jose Garcia felt that it will be the player in the shirt worn by Ossie Ardiles at Spain 1982, that will be most important to Diego’s team in the coming months;
“The Goalkeeper is the key position, that is where the game will be won. The team can do better, this was not the regulars tonight. It will be interesting to see how Maradona and Messi work together. Maradona has been a little critical of Messi in past. It’s the master coaching the apprentice.”
Giving a home team’s perspective of the match was Hearts fan Steven McLellan;
“Not too bad, a good result against Norway and the World Cup could be on. Give the lads a bit of time. Good to see the wee man up and about for them, the Hand of God stuff makes him a hero in Scotland. A true football legend, his second goal against England qualified the first.”
The only football legend to lose face at Hampden turned out to be Terry Butcher. In his day Butcher was without doubt an excellent player for his club and his country, but once again came out of a battle with Diego Maradona bruised and battered. Butcher exemplified the double standards which become commonplace when supporting a team.
I’m sure Argentina’s goalscorer Maxi Rodriguez has his own view of the gamesmanship of England’s internationals after he saw his goal at Anfield cancelled out from the spot by Steven Gerrard earlier this month.
Diego rose above Butcher’s playground histrionics by playing out the Dylan line while dealing with unsavoury characters from the past, “It’s easily done, just pick anyone, and act like you’ve never met.”
Throughout his career it seems that Diego has been his own worst enemy. Jose Garcia, a self confessed follower of the Church of Maradona, has this to say,
“Here is a guy with a big heart, lot of passion. People put him down because they are envious and weak compared to him. His background is as tough as anyone could imagine. I believe it gave him strength and a reason to fight.”
Certainly Maradona attributes his upper body strength which fended off so many aggressors whilst playing, to his days carrying water from the tap in his home slum of Villa Fiorito to the house he shared with his parents and seven siblings.
It’s the common censuses in the bar that this is the only job big enough for Maradona. He should not be judged for spells at Racing Club and Textil Mandiyu. It called to mind a player from this island who also scaled the heights and plunged the depths on and off the football field. Surely no one will mention Kettering Town in Paul Gascoigne’s epitaph?
As sobering as it was possible to be by this stage of the evening, talking with the Argentine fans left me with two examples of how big business dominates not only football in this country but also globally. Firstly, the fans were unanimous in thinking the appointment of Diego Maradona was done for strictly commercial reasons. No romance on the part of the AFA’s bigwigs, but moreover the lure of the lucre.
“His appointment is a business decision, he is still a very marketable man.” Sebastian Folino's opinion of the move and his thoughts are echoed by Augustin Martinez. Augustin spoke of Julio Grondona, AFA president and vice-president of FIFA as being the main power broker in the arrangement.
“Grondona has given Diego the opportunity to expose the myth of Maradona, can he achieve anymore for Argentine football? If he can we will all be very happy.”
The second point is that the disappointing qualifying campaign is blamed, not so much on Maradona’s predecessor Alfio Basile but rather on the demands placed on the players. They earn their crust in Europe and have to travel halfway around the world to play in World Cup qualifying games. Augustin Martinez sees this as a major sticking point in Argentina’s progression;
“100% of our best players are in Europe. The talked about picking a team with 50% European based players and 50% from the Argentinian league but the idea went nowhere. It’s like when UEFA talk of their six plus five rule in the Premier League, it just isn’t going to happen. It’s all about money I guess.”
Still it’s not all doom and gloom for Diego’s Argentina. They lie third in their qualifying group and will easily make it to South Africa. They have often qualified ahead of Brazil and fared worse at the tournament stage. Even now they are only one point behind their greatest rival.
However, they can look to solace from their South American compatriots. Brazil limped to the 2002 World Cup like a rabid dog only to buck up their ideas once there, as they won their fifth Coupe du Monde. A repeat performance for the boys in blue and white would be nice. It sounds like a repeat performance is just what Diego has in mind as he made his goals as coach, “First and foremost I am here to win the World Cup.”
Federico Macri gave his insight into the mentality which is roughly translated as "win at all costs" and landed Diego in hot water with the English in Mexico. This was 20 years after Sir Alf told England players not to shake hands with their Argentinian opponents and accused them of behaving like "animals."
“There is no other result than to win, players and managers know this. Not to win is failure. Basile didn’t get the right results , maybe it was the team’s fault but still he had to go.” Federico said, bluntly.
It seems that ever since the 1994 World Cup ended in disgrace for Diego, Argentina has been waiting in vain for the ‘Next Maradona’ to come along. Ortega, Riquelme, Messi and others have all had to play with that weight of expectation. Argentina fans hope they have finally found the "Next Maradona’" who will lead them to another World Cup triumph.