James Lawton: Maradona may be crazed but his inspiration could pave the way to Argentinian gold
He may be on the verge of his last disaster or of his greatest triumph since Mexico. But failure will not come with even a hint of timidity
Tuesday 25 May 2010
As if life isn't already filled with sufficient peril, I have become financially involved in the future of Diego Maradona.
Not hugely, understand, but a decent little investment has been made on the hunch that he will confound all his critics and shortly deliver the second World Cup-winning performance of his life, this time on the touchline as a crazed but inspiring talisman of the Argentine soul.
A shaky enterprise, this, and if there was any doubt about it Lee Dixon, an admirable judge of the old game and arguably the nation's fastest rising TV analyst, blew away some of the last of it when he curtly dismissed the optimism of the 1978 Argentina hero, and Tottenham star, Ossie Ardiles.
Ardiles suggested that as fourth favourites at 15-2 his compatriots were an inviting wager indeed with Lionel Messi, high-octane forwards like Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito and Sergio Aguero, plus the old artist Juan Sebastian Veron enjoying a wondrous Indian summer of the career that so suddenly went wrong.
He also claimed that apart from the fact that Argentina had assembled the most talented squad since he and Ricky Villa and Daniel Passarella and Mario Kempes lifted the trophy under the brilliant, chain-smoking coach Cesar Menotti, they were likely to settle down after Maradona's somewhat manic qualification campaign. "It would surprise me if they did," said Dixon dryly, "as it does look like Maradona hasn't got a clue."
But then what if he had something more valuable than a clue? What he if had some ostensibly insane but real understanding of how the most perennially talented and neurotic football nation in the world best lives and breathes?
No doubt some of his decisions have been worthy of the deepest frowns, not least the casting aside of Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti, pillars of Internazionale's Champions League triumph. Apart from his recent contribution to that stunning achievement, Cambiasso will perhaps always be remembered as the scorer of the most beautiful goal of World Cup 2006, the one against Serbia and Montenegro that briefly held out the hope that the tournament had been lifted by the presence of a potentially great side.
Maradona, an extremely high- profile supporter in Germany, glowed with the belief that the nation he led so extraordinarily to their second World Cup triumph in Mexico in 1986 had again been touched by greatness. He was inconsolable when the Argentine hopes crumbled in a penalty shoot-out against Germany, then descended into a squalid punch-up at the end the game.
He was aghast that coach Jose Pekerman refused to gamble on Messi who was stranded on the bench as Argentina ached for a decisive flash of the brilliance that, even as he recovered from injury, might have changed everything.
Dixon is right about Maradona not having a clue about the conventions of running a squad. Arbitrary, impulsive, prone to firing air pistols and driving cars at members of the press corps, mad in his personal excesses, he certainly is. But then in the absence of a clue maybe he indeed has enough antennae to break the code of the great Argentine football mystery.
Sir Bobby Charlton pronounced it utterly indecipherable after the mayhem of the 1966 quarter-final when the captain, Antonio Rattin, a warm and charming friend when the action was over, seemed to lose his mind and a team capable of playing the most sublime football spat and cheated and then tried to enter the post-game English dressing room in the hope of continuing the battle. "You couldn't believe a team of talent and beauty one minute could so betray itself," he sighed.
Yet now they have as their coach the embodiment of all the contradictions. The man who scored possibly the greatest goal in the history of the World Cup against England – and also fisted in another quite shamelessly – has written his own book of self-destruction but he has also lived a miracle of survival. Who is to say that this won't touch his players in places unreachable even by a Jose Mourinho when the action gets most intense in South Africa?
He was seen there in a township a few months ago while inspecting the Argentine accommodation and training facilities in Pretoria. His impact was extraordinary among young people who had only been told of his greatness and it was as if he was growing in the force of the attention and the admiration.
No one can really say at this point how deep will run his ability to inspire players of another generation when they are confronted by the challenge of their lives and in circumstances of emotion remarkable even by their extraordinary standards. All we can say for sure is that no football team was ever coached by a man who represented so profoundly, in all his sadness and his glory, both their strengths and their weaknesses.
He may be on the verge of his last disaster or of his greatest triumph since that roasting day in Mexico City. What is impossible to imagine is that failure will be accompanied by even a breath of timidity.
That, at least, is the calculation here. At 15-2 it is maybe not the worst bet the world has ever known.
The game needs an independent voice at the FA
the encouraging news is that despite massive briefing from within the football establishment, the new and extremely promising sports minister Hugh Robertson is unlikely to be persuaded that the follies of Lord Triesman make an unanswerable case against another independent chairman of the Football Association.
We are told that the old game is doing very nicely on its own account, that meddling outsiders can only ruin a good thing.
Some good thing, you have to say, when you consider the plight of Portsmouth Football Club, the chaos of Liverpool and the fact that Manchester United operate under a structure of debt that makes a nonsense of all their achievements under the management of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Just this week we have two fresh examples of the failure of English football to properly attend to vital business.
One comes with the admission of the Premier League that it is powerless to prevent Blackpool's chief shareholder Owen Oyston from continuing as a director despite the fact that he is a convicted rapist.
Legal advice points that as Mr Oyston's conviction pre-dated by eight years the installing of the league's Fit and Proper Persons test no action can be taken.
But just imagine it – and yes, Mr Robertson it is a bit of a stretch – that the world's biggest, richest league took 12 years to get round to a monitoring system as sketchy as the one that allowed former Manchester City owner Thaksin Shinawatra to shake off the pursuit of several major human rights organisations and slip into his seat at the Eastlands Stadium.
Then there is the astonishing business of England's players having to be warned again about the dangers of the horticulture disaster known as the Wembley football pitch before their game with Mexico. Blackpool's midfielder Gary Taylor-Fletcher (below) left Wembley on crutches on Saturday after having his studs caught in the notorious surface. "The England players have got to be careful," he said. "One slip and their World Cup could be over."
Yes, football needs an independent chairman – plus an office filled with investigators, lawyers and accountants. It might also find some use for a bulldozer and a hose.
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