Diego Going Going Gone!!!

July 28, 2010

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.


Messi!

April 16, 2010

When we talk about the greatest players the world has ever seen, the same old familiar names continually crop up…..Puskas, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Pele, Maradona, Beckanbauer. Then fans add their personal favourites….Hoddle, Charlton, Dalglish, Larsson, Eusebio, Best etc   Invariably it comes down to the two number tens. Are you a Pele fan? Or a Maradona supporter? A Brazilian and an Argentine ……when it came to announcing the player of the century, even FIFA wimped out of making a decision and made them joint champions. Pele or Maradona? We have all got an opinion – the hard part is keeping Maradona’s off field antics out of the debate.

Now there is a player on the verge of making that duopoly, a triumvirate. In the space of five days last week we watched as two of Europes great clubs were reduced to a shambles by a player known as “the flea”.  Lionel Messi tore Arsenal to shreds in their champions league quarterfinal. Four goals of the highest quality. Messi’s movement, his vision, his touch, his whole game, were out of this world. Arsenal simply didn’t have an answer. To his credit, Arsene Wenger said as much after the game, likening Messi to a playstation footballer – that’s where one player seems to score all the goals and makes all the great runs.

Following the Arsenal slaughter our attentions were drawn to El Classico – Real Madrid v Barcelona ….and the supposed mouth watering subplot of the two greatest players in the world today. What a mismatch. Messi was sublime again, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo was virtually anonymous. In his first decent run he weaved past a defender saw the line of the penalty area and sank to his knees looking for a penalty….. Messi meanwhile was running amuck up front. His quick thinking and a wonderful one-two with Xavi resulted in “the flea” jinking behind a defender and putting the ball beyond Casillas and giving Barca the lead, a lead they would never look like giving up. Like Arsenal, Real just couldn’t handle Messi’s off the ball runs, his timing, his movement.  Its not the first time the two have faced each other – famously last seasons champions league final saw Messi – all 5’ 7” of him – score with a header as Barca won 2-0 against Ronaldo’s Manchester United. Ronaldo was missing in action that day too. Put simply there is no comparison between the two.

Messi is, of course, the current world player of the year, after being ranked second in each of the last two years and is streets ahead of whoever is considered second now.  But is he good enough to join the other number 10s? Well, not yet. Though he has proven himself at club level and in the strongest league in the world (the Champions League), he has still to shine at a world cup. Not only shine at a world cup, but win it for his country. When we recall Pele, we remember the 17 year old scoring for fun in 1958 and the star man in what is arguably the greatest team ever, Brazil of 1970. When we think back to Maradona, we recall a man who won the 1986 world cup almost single handedly and somehow inspired a poor Argentine side to the Italia 90 final. Magnificent achievements! Both those players played in four world cups.

Messi is just 22. He played in Germany and could potentially play in a further four world cups.  In 2006 he became the youngest player to represent Argentina at a world cup, and being the youngest scorer in the tournament, he was also the sixth youngest scorer of all time. He made three appearances at the tournament but was amazingly left on the bench as Argentina were eliminated in the quarterfinals.

It’s the great tournaments that define the truly great players. South Africa in June seems to be beckoning for Messi, but his country’s team are struggling under Maradona’s stewardship. We are looking at the most wide open world cup for a long time. Spain are as good as they have ever been, England (as always!) fancy themselves, and we can be certain that Germany and Brazil will be a threat as they always are.  There’s also the suggestion that Ghana, Nigeria & Ivory Coast will have some say as to who wins the trophy. Argentina may have struggled through qualifying but they will no doubt be a threat. If Messi can transfer his Barcelona form to his national team……if Maradona can build his team around him……we might well see Messi really stamp his authority as one the truly great players of all time.

Its almost frightening to think that he is still five years from his peak.