Ramon Diaz: Globe-trotting thoroughbred commits to Oxford cause

Former Argentina international with a proven track record in top-flight management has turned down lucrative offers to toil at the lower end of the Football League unpaid.
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The Independent Online

As Ramon Diaz sits in the reception area at the Kassam Stadium, you wonder whether the fresh-faced Oxford United players who pass by and acknowledge him with self- conscious smiles quite appreciate the pedigree of their new manager.

Diaz was never quite in the same league as Diego Maradona, one of his international team-mates, but 24 caps for Argentina and the Serie A title with Internazionale speak for themselves. He has also built a successful career in management, winning the Libertadores Cup and five Argentinian championships with River Plate.

Which prompts the obvious question. What on earth is Diaz, not to mention the five-man Argentinian back-room team he has brought with him, doing at a club just seven places off the bottom of the Football League?

"I like English football and I wanted to get first-hand experience of it," the 45-year-old says with a smile. "I'd seen plenty of it on television. It's not like football in other European countries, like France or Italy. It's also very interesting to work at this level, because it's completely different from football at the top."

In the 1980s Oxford had three years in the top flight and brought the League Cup back to the Manor Ground. Those days, however, are now just a memory, like their former home. Firoz Kassam, a businessman said to be worth £90m, saved the club from financial ruin, sold the Manor Ground for development and moved to a purpose-built stadium on the city's outskirts. The finances have stabilised, but the team's slide has not been halted.

After seven changes of manager in as many years, Kassam decided on a radical move when he replaced Graham Rix earlier this season. Kassam spends most of his time in Monaco, where a business acquaintance, Jean-Marc Goiran, introduced him to Diaz. Goiran, a merchant banker, knew Diaz from his days playing at Monaco in the early 1990s.

"Mr Kassam asked me to come here to help him, to advise on what changes were needed, to use my experience," Diaz says. "At first I wasn't sure, but when I thought more about it I thought I would like to come here and have a look."

Diaz, who was linked with a move to Queen's Park Rangers earlier this season, accepted Kassam's invitation after spending some time watching games and visiting clubs with Horacio Rodriguez, his former assistant at River Plate. The two men have now been joined at Oxford by four others from their time at River Plate: Raul Marcovich, a coach; Pablo Fernandez, a physical trainer who worked with Saudi Arabia's 1994 World Cup squad; Rafael Giulietti, a doctor; and Giuliani Iacoppi, a translator.

Oxford say that none of the Argentinians is being paid. This may have something to do with the fact that anyone from outside the European Union generally needs a permit to work here. The Home Office has already started to investigate and Frank Clark, of the League Managers Association, said that the LMA had raised the matter with the Football Association and the Football League.

"It's not up to us to tell Mr Kassam who he can and can't appoint, but we are concerned," Clark says. "Four or five positions at the club are being filled by Argentinians at a time when we have literally hundreds of managers and coaches unemployed."

Goiran, who is working as the link between Kassam and the Argentinians, says that Diaz is seeking an Italian passport (his wife is Italian and the family home is in Venice). "Ramon would have gone to another club if he wanted to earn a lot of money," Goiran says. "He doesn't want to be paid. He doesn't need it and what sort of money could he ask for anyway as manager of Oxford? Mr Kassam has said that if he brings success he will give him shares in the club. Ramon is making his own arrangements with his staff. Maybe they will have a contract in a few weeks' time."

In the circumstances it is not surprising that Diaz, who has failed to turn up for some other interviews, appears to be a slightly reluctant talker. He speaks through an interpreter, though he and his team are having English lessons every day.

His first four games - a win, a defeat and two draws - have shown the size of his task but he has been encouraged by the players' response. "They've been very positive," Diaz says. "We've been asking a lot of them. We're making a lot of tactical changes. We've only just started and we'll take things step by step."

One of Diaz's sons, Emiliano, 21, who has played for River Plate and Cordoba, has been training with Oxford and may be given his chance. His 18-year-old brother, Michael, has also been working with the squad. Diaz says he needs to bring in new players, but insists: "We don't want to do things too quickly. Maybe we can bring something different. We might play 4-4-2, we might play 4-3-1-2. It depends on the players. We'll take things step by step. We need to find out what the players can do and then adapt the way we play."

Diaz began his career in Buenos Aires at River Plate at a time when Maradona was emerging across the city at Boca Juniors. Diaz scored the winner for River Plate in Maradona's last game for Boca. "I always used to score against Boca," Diaz says. "They were always fantastic battles because the clubs are huge rivals. I remember scoring twice against Boca when we won 5-2 - at their ground."

At 23 Diaz left for Italy, where he spent seven years with Napoli, Avellino, Fiorentina and Internazionale, helping the latter to win Serie A in 1989. He then spent two years at Monaco under Arsène Wenger ("he's a great friend and we still talk a lot") and alongside Glenn Hoddle ("he was a fantastic player and I liked him a lot as a person"). Diaz adds: "I'm also very close to Sven Goran Eriksson. I knew him from my time in Italy."

Diaz returned to River Plate for two years before ending his career in Japan with Yokohama Marinos, where he was the J-League's leading scorer in its inaugural season. He began coaching in Japan before taking over at River Plate, where he enjoyed regular success until he resigned two years ago. "We had won everything and I wanted to try something somewhere else, to experience football elsewhere," says Diaz, who has spent the intervening period watching football around the world.

Diaz was a key member of the brilliant Argentina team which won the World Youth Championship in 1979. He and Maradona both scored in the final against the Soviet Union, Diaz finishing as the tournament's leading scorer after taking a tip from Maradona, who advised him not to try to break the net every time.

"You appreciated what a great team we were when you saw what the individual players all went on to achieve afterwards," Diaz says. "One of the great things about Maradona was his speed. He had fantastic skills, but what he also had was great pace. You can't find players like him now. He would win games on his own."

Diaz played at Wembley in a friendly against England in 1980, when Maradona's talents were unveiled to a wider world, and went on to play in the 1982 World Cup. He scored against Brazil, but, like his team, generally disappointed. It was Diaz's last appearance in a World Cup, though Maradona revealed in his autobiography that he had told Carlos Bilardo, the Argentina manager, that he wanted Diaz in the team in both 1986 and 1990. "Maradona was right," Diaz says. "I should have played. I know that he wanted me in the team, but in the end it's up to the coach to pick the side."

These memories are all a far cry from the task of lifting Oxford away from the lower reaches of the Football League. Since he left River Plate, Diaz is said to have turned down big-money offers to work in Italy, Japan and elsewhere and it still seems baffling that he has chosen to work - for nothing - at Oxford. Goiran, however, may reveal Diaz's motivation when he admits: "Perhaps he will move on to a bigger English club in the future. If he's a success, maybe some of the big clubs will sit up and take notice and maybe try to recruit him. It all depends on what he achieves at Oxford."