After the last-gasp World Cup qualification, Maradona must listen to his closest advisors – or risk failure in South Africa
When Diego Maradona was handed the reins of his beloved Argentina team, those prepared to give him a chance of making a success of the job despite his poor coaching curriculum vitae thought he might be able to imbue the side with some of his magic.
But the genius Maradona showed as a player did not guarantee a talent for transmitting his winning ideas to others or forging a successful team in the manner of a Johan Cruyff.
Now, after Argentina’s last-gasp ticket to South Africa 2010, Maradona has the time to prepare for an assault on a rare double – achieved only by Franz Beckenbauer – of captaining then coaching his country to World Cup victory.
According to a recent poll, a majority of Argentinians would scoff at the very notion, preferring to see him sacked and someone else take charge. But that will not happen, so their best option is to hope that, as in 1986, an apparently disjointed team once again comes good.
Maradona was slammed for his lewd insults towards a section of the media after qualification was secured in Montevideo and for the apparent disunity in the national team set-up.
His relationship with Carlos Bilardo, technical director of all Argentina’s national teams, is poor and he is perceived as refusing to take criticism or even advice. Yet there are some signs matters might improve.
Early in November, Maradona’s coaching staff were up for the renewal of their contracts or dismissal – and out went the ineffectual Miguel Angel Lemme, a Bilardo man.
Maradona had been trying almost from day one to get Oscar Ruggeri to work alongside him, but Argentinian Football Association president Julio Grondona has refused to budge on the issue, having had a run-in with the former captain in the past.
However, Maradona brought in another former Argentina defender, Fernando Gamboa, who has impressed since taking charge at struggling Chacarita Juniors in September. Another talked of as a possible assistant is Antonio Mohamed, a former international striker who has steered modest Santa Fe club Colon into contention in the opening championship.
If Maradona is prepared to listen to his assistants and apply their recommendations, Argentina should be able to find ways of bringing the best out of Lionel Messi in a light blue and white jersey, and work on their defence at set-pieces – from which they were badly exposed by Brazil in Rosario in September.
Contradictions and extremes
The problems come from the contradictions and extremes in Maradona’s life and personality. He said in his attack on journalists at the Centenario in Montevideo after the 1-0 win over Uruguay: “I’m black or white, I’ll never be grey in my life.”
A friend one day turns into an enemy the next and Maradona, who reacts violently to criticism or when he feels he has been misquoted, needs to be able to delegate – something hard for a man who resolved, or at least tried to resolve, all his problems single-handedly.
He needs also to take on board the opinions of leading player Juan Sebastian Veron, who said Argentina needed to correct many of the mistakes made during this year’s qualifiers, and “not bury them under the carpet”.
Maradona did not appear entirely happy with Veron’s comments right after qualification was secured, with a look that might have expressed his disappointment at someone speaking out of turn as if betraying the sacred intimacy of the squad.
Jorge Rocco, a psychologist who has worked with first division teams, was asked whether the siege mentality Maradona appears to favour to unite his players was a good basis on which to run a team. His answer reflects Veron’s comment.
“It is preferable to look inwards, accept mistakes and solve them,” Rocco told the sports daily Ole. “Group cohesion should be made on more solid bases. This [siege mentality] way, you put the dirt under the carpet.”