Diego Maradona’s reign as Argentina coach ended this week – the only surprise being that the Argentine FA actually had the strength not to renew his contract.
One can’t help but think that Maradona’s was a hasty appointment – one which smacked of desperation at a time when Argentina were struggling to qualify for the world cup. Appointed in October 2008 after Argentina had won only one of their previous eight matches, Maradona was seen as some sort of saviour – the hope and expectation being that he could transmit his abilities as a player into the managerial field.
Despite the opinions we all may have on his lifestyle, his cheating, his drug taking, tax evasion etc, there has never been any doubt about the mans qualities as a player. In 1986 he single handedly won the world cup for Argentina, but perhaps his finest achievement was dragging the 1990 Argentina side all the way to the final. That was an Argentine side which lacked quality throughout and yet Maradona was great enough to inspire his team to victories over Brazil, Yugoslavia & Italy before succumbing to Germany in the final.
His previous managerial career consisted of two short and unsuccessful spells at club level in the mid 90s so it was a huge gamble for the AFA to appoint him when they did. It’s unthinkable that Argentina wouldn’t be at the world cup and yet it was certainly looking that way. Indeed he started off with 3 successive wins, but inspiration can only go so far before lack of ability is found out. In his fourth match in charge, Argentina suffered a 6-1 loss to Bolivia, equalling their biggest ever loss, and at that point many questioned the wisdom of his appointment. Bolivia were to finish second bottom of the Conmebol (South American) qualification table a full thirteen points away from qualifying. From then on Argentina performed as a mediocre mid-table team would do – winning some and losing some and they stumbled into the finals by winning their final two matches.
That last statement alone says much about Maradona’s ability as a coach. With the greatest player on the planet in his side and the talent of Tevez, Milito, Cambiasso, Zanetti & Riquelme available to back Messi up, Argentina should have been going to South Africa as Conmebol winners and expecting to win the cup, not as a mediocre also ran. Maradona though picked a squad that was never going to go far. No Cambiasso, no Zanetti, no Riquelme, 7 strikers – including, absurdly, Martin Palermo!!! – and, most importantly, no recognised ball winner. In the simple act of squad selection, Maradona did what managers throughout Europe had failed to do for the past five years – take Lionel Messi out of the game!
With no one to give him the ball, Messi was a mere passenger when it came to the business end of the cup. He shone against South Korea, in the group stages, creating all four goals and we saw glimpses elsewhere, but they were only glimpses – not the domination we see week in week out for Barcelona. In the second round match against Mexico, Argentina were struggling until that awful refereeing decision gave them the lead. That was followed up by a defensive error and Argentina were cruising. Then came Germany……
Maradona is an inspirational figure for Argentinians everywhere. He is an entertainer, he is vibrant, he is an extrovert and he is a delight to watch. But as a manager he was found out as being tactically inept and being unable to understand that a team needs balance. It was also clear that he didn’t have the ability to recognise quality players.
The Argentine Football Association are to be commended for recognising that in order to be competitive in Brazil 2014, they must do so without their national hero.