Maradona untouchable despite latest defeat
Those waiting for Diego Maradona to resign or be sacked after yet another dismal Argentina performance in the World Cup qualifiers forget that he is untouchable.
Maradona will press on blindly, brushing off criticism with remarks about having always fought adversity and come out on top.
The team he led to victory in the 1986 World Cup forged their solidarity in the them-and-us syndrome: Them being influential people in Buenos Aires, like then government Sports secretary Rodolfo O’Reilly, trying to get coach Carlos Bilardo ousted weeks before the tournament in Mexico when they looked a poor team.
Victory served to increase Maradona’s self-belief and aura of invincibility.
Maradona recalled on Wednesday night that Argentina were close to elimination in the qualifiers for the 1986 finals and that they had to play Australia in a playoff for the 1994 tournament.
He is the arch-survivor, from the time an uncle plucked him as a little boy out of a cesspit in the shantytown where he grew up to the several occasions when he cheated death by drugs or obesity after retiring as a player.
Whether or not he is a good coach, an astute leader of men, an inspiration to his players doesn’t come into it: Faith is the issue and “The Hand of God” claims to have plenty.
Maradona’s appointment last October appalled a lot of Argentines but just as many had faith that he could inspire the team like no-one else, touch Lionel Messi with his magic wand and transform Argentina.
Good results in friendlies in his early games in charge fuelled the faith and a 4-0 home win over Venezuela in his first qualifier in charge looked good — on paper.
Ultimately it did a lot of damage, because the team tried to play the same game more than 3,500 metres up in the rarefied air of La Paz and got pasted 6-1 by Bolivia.
There has been just one win in the four qualifiers since, 1-0 at home to Colombia who were unlucky not to get at least a draw.
In Maradona’s defence, the team played well away to Ecuador in their next away game at altitude, pacing themselves, but a penalty miss by Carlos Tevez denied them the halftime lead they deserved. They lost their legs in the final quarter of an hour and conceded two late goals to go down 2-0.
The Brazil and Paraguay defeats in the last six days followed, leaving Argentina in the playoff position.
Tevez’s Argentina form is symptomatic of the team’s ills. He is no longer the South American Tevez who inspired Boca Juniors and Corinthians to titles. He has moulded himself into the ultimate idol of the English fans’ and managers’ love of the work ethic. He always gave his all but he seems to have lost his ball touch.
Messi’s performances have merely highlighted the superb job Pep Guardiola does at Barcelona where the Argentine wonder kid responds brilliantly to a tune dictated by Xavi and Iniesta.
Argentines want to see the Barcelona Messi playing for their country but there is no strong team structure for him to shine in and he can’t carry the team like Maradona did at a similar age.
The Argentina team became Maradona’s baby as a captain. It is no different as a coach, only he lacks the ability from the touchline to carry the team to victory that he had as a player.
Critics have said they hope Maradona fails and Argentina don’t go to the finals in South Africa so the team can make a new start. A process that brought Argentina five of their record six World Youth Cups in the last decade and a half and produced a team who were favourites to win the senior title in 2002 and met Brazil in the 2004 and 2007 Copa America finals has hit the buffers.
Maradona believes only he can save them.
PHOTO: Diego Maradona sits on the bench during Argentina’s defeat by Paraguay in Asuncion, Sept. 9, 2009. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci