James Lawton: Magic in Maradona's madness burns brighter than ever after Dunga's defeat
Saturday 03 July 2010
There is something more poignant than the traditional dismay of Brazil when they are ejected from the tournament they have reason to believe they own, this time by a Dutch team they had come to genuinely admire and fear over the last few days.
It is that their most celebrated son Pele, about whom some of the best judges of football would rather have their hand thrust into an open fire than accept that anyone was better, just cannot leave alone the subject of Diego Maradona. Almost every time he opens his mouth he slips a little further into the role of a snarling character assassin.
This is becoming tragic or, even worse, tragicomic, as the Argentinian hell-raiser confidently attempts to advance here today with such passion that stands in stark contrast to the disillusionment running so deeply in the Brazilian game, after which Dunga now faces some terrible accountability. The extraordinary possibility remains that, while rising from the debris of a ruinous life, Maradona will in eight days' time complete a World Cup double to astound all of football.
Maradona won this trophy as a player 24 years ago in a way no one who saw him do it will ever forget. Now, at 49, 20 years younger than his Brazilian arch-critic, his ambition is even more prodigious.
He seeks to make clowns of all those respected critics who lined up behind the great Pele and said that the rulers of Argentinian football had committed an act of collective lunacy when they made him coach.
The improbability of Maradona's possible success in the minds of his accusers, though, is best defined by the bizarre charge that really he did not want to see the success of his superb on-field successor Lionel Messi here because it would threaten his own status as the football icon of the nation and a large part of the world.
Yet as this indictment is made progressively more absurd – Maradona has fussed over Messi these last few days as if he were a first, late-born son and this week ushered him off to bed and hot lemon at the first sign of a sniffle – it is Pele who continues to play the embittered, ageing man who cannot surrender the stage he once dominated so magnificently.
The tragedy, it appears, is being made not just by the ticking of the clock but something in the great footballer that refuses to allow him to see that sometimes life offers even its worst abusers the chance of extraordinary redemption. Maradona may fail here in the end, he may be ambushed by the impressive, renascent young Germany, he may be engulfed by the skill of Spain or the surge of Holland, but no one will be able to say that he did not provide glorious theatre here along with the chance of making football history of the highest, most entrancing order.
Except Pele, that is. This is him digging into the old ragbag of resentment this week on behalf of a German magazine: "Maradona is not a good coach because he has a bizarre lifestyle and this cannot go down well with the team. He is doing the job only for the money."
This is on the heavy side of rich from a man who has travelled the world trading on his achievements, piling one ad campaign on top of another with the crowning recommendation for the wonders of Viagra. Also, unforgettably, at one sponsored lunch at the World Cup in Japan eight years ago, he told a gathering of English journalists that he thought that the most influential player in that tournament, which also featured the young Ronaldinho, the still potent old Ronaldo and a Zinedine Zidane who had just scored one of the great goals ever seen in a Champions League final, could be a holding player of the name of Nicky Butt.
Not a hanging offence, perhaps, but perhaps not the opinion of someone icily detached from an awareness of what might have most effect on the morning prints and the inevitable sponsors' name check. Nor of someone best placed to pass verdicts on the money-grabbing motivations of others.
He was in that kind of form this week while heaping praise on the new Germany for the sake of a home audience. "The young German team are a pleasure to watch," he said. "It is clear that something has changed in German football. It was beginning to happen in Euro 2008 when Germany finished runners-up to Spain. The youngsters Mesut Ozil and Thomas Müller, they are like their predecessors Wolfgang Overath and Pierre Littbarski. They can dribble, deliver pinpoint passes and produce something at any moment."
So far, though, no lavish praise for the mesmerising performances of Messi, the huge heart being displayed by Carlos Tevez, the predatory instincts of Gonzalo Higuain and the potentially sensational resurrection of Juan Sebastian Veron. No hint that maybe the carousing side of Maradona's nature has been rather effectively balanced by the dream-like passion he has generated in a nation that has spent 24 years wondering when it might celebrate the God-given talent he exploited so astonishingly all those years ago.
No, there isn't any question about Pele's right to be remembered as the world's best player. For 12 years, he represented everything that was most admirable in the game: he was brilliantly gifted in every aspect of football, physically strong in the most awesome way and his understanding of time and space often reached supernatural levels.
There was, however, another quality that carried him beyond all rivals and it is that attribute which nags so poignantly now as he insists on waging his mean-spirited vendetta against the player who, for so many, ranks behind only himself.
It was humility, an ability that welled out of him at the most vital of occasions and was probably captured for all time when he supplied the pass for Carlos Alberto's crowning goal in the defeat of Italy in the all-time World Cup final of 1970. Pele was so superb that day because his creativity was so controlled, geared so absolutely to the needs of a team already bristling with exceptional ability. If there was a killing feint to be made and a simple but devastating pass, he would make them. Football wasn't his personal ad hoarding then, it was the challenge he had mastered more purely than any player before or after.
As he approaches his 70th birthday, it is how we should be allowed to remember Pele. Nothing that Maradona achieves here, or produced on his own day of the highest football destiny in Mexico City 16 years after Pele's supreme performance, should interfere with our picture of a man who knew football so well and brought to it such unprecedented distinction.
It is, surely, time for him to remember who he is and what he should always mean.
Beckenbauer's worth to the game is beyond value
Maybe we should give the multi-talented Piers Morgan the benefit of the doubt and say that in his role as a sportswriter he produced the other day a rhetorical question of wonderful irony.
It was when he was exercised by certain criticisms levelled at English football. He demanded to know: who does Franz Beckenbauer think he is?
Well, the best guess here is that he thinks he is Franz Beckenbauer, which means of course that he has forgotten more about the priorities of football than Mr Morgan and most of the rest of us will ever guess.
What Beckenbauer also represents in his magnificent contribution to the German game, as a player and a coach and an administrator, is the value to a serious football nation of a man of such knowledge and experience.
In England we pat our greatest players on the head and, if they are lucky, they get free tickets to the international games we tend to lose when it matters most.
Those of us who believe English football is in desperate need of the influence of its best thinkers, and highest achievers, can only welcome the news that a chastened Fabio Capello will stay in charge of the national team. He had a gruesome experience here in South Africa, and no doubt he learnt some new lessons in his first experience of how leading English players react to great pressure. But then if he cannot learn from them, who can?
BA saves myself and Mr Beckham from a heavy fall
On yesterday's flight to Cape Town I sat next to a rather charming Mr Beckham, not the great celebrity who was, of course, at Centre Court, but a South African whose job is to try to get computers into the poorest schools.
The distinction is made only because had his more famous namesake been aboard, something more might have been made of the fact that because of a breakdown in the pressure system we were required to descend rather briskly by roughly 20,000 feet and turn back to Johannesburg airport.
On the scale of mid-flight crises this probably ranked quite low. However, it didn't seem that way to many anxious passengers and the real point of this is that the cabin crew behaved with brilliant, professional aplomb. They were, for the record, employees of British Airways.
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