A not so happy birthday for Maradona
Diego Maradona is spending his 50th birthday on Saturday far from the two things that have dominated his life — soccer and being constantly in the public eye.
That leaves Argentina’s greatest player at a crossroads a few short months after a humiliating 4-0 defeat by Germany in the World Cup quarter-finals cost him the job as coach of his beloved Argentina.
Having cheated death more than once and defied doubters to get the job in November 2008, it would be unwise to write off his chances of returning to it one day.
Indeed, former Boca Juniors and Argentina team mate and friend Claudio Caniggia saw him recently and confirmed Maradona was still interested.
“He looked well,” Caniggia said in an interview with the sports daily Ole published on Thursday.
“Obviously, there’s pain. He still hopes for a chance, but he’s well,” said Caniggia, who pointed out that far more experienced coaches have been unable to steer Argentina beyond the last eight since 1990. “Although he doesn’t say so to me, I’m sure inside himself he thinks he deserves to carry on. I think he deserved to.”
The job is, in fact, still open with Maradona’s 1986 World Cup-winning team mate Sergio Batista enjoying a head start as the interim coach and the backing of Argentine Football Association president Julio Grondona.
An AFA selection committee set up specially to chose the coach to steer Argentina to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is expected to deliver its verdict on Tuesday.
Whoever gets the job will have to prove his capacity when Argentina host the Copa America in July. Argentina lost the final to Brazil the last two times it was played in 2004 and 2007. It was also Argentina’s last trophy way back in 1993.
There is no indication that Maradona is on the list, but just as he was called on before to bail out the team when they were in crisis, as a player first ahead of the 1994 World Cup and then as coach two years ago, his supporters will push his case at the first real sign of failure.
Maradona is not short of supporters, a mark of the respect he still commands on the basis of a playing career that marked him out as one of the game’s true greats.
Some are in government and Maradona was at President Cristina Fernandez’s side on Thursday as the country mourned the sudden death at 60 of her husband, former head of state Nestor Kirchner.
October is a special month for Maradona. He was 10 days short of his 16th birthday when he turned out for Argentinos Juniors, a modest first division outfit, for the first time and he also made his final appearance for Boca Juniors just before his 37th birthday in 1997.
In between, he won league titles with Boca in 1981 and twice with Napoli in 1987 and 1990.
His crowning glory, though, was leading Argentina to World Cup victory in Mexico in 1986.
Maradona also flirted with disgrace and even death in a drugs fuelled later career in which he served two long suspensions for doping and a decade in retirement in which he battled to cure his habit.
Maradona had his critics but their voice was drowned by the idolatry of the crowds for the country’s most popular figure since Eva Peron… and like Evita, he delivered, brilliantly, memorably, controversially.
Not everyone has liked his lavish, celebrity lifestyle, his friends, many of them hangers-on, his over-the-top wedding to girl-next-door sweetheart Claudia Villafane and his drug addiction, but Argentines overlooked all of this because with Maradona, Argentina were always tipped to win.
The World Cup in South Africa did not turn out well for Maradona but with him Argentine fans will always dream of better things to come.
PHOTO: Former Argentina’s national soccer team coach Diego Maradona falls on the pitch during a charity match for Fernando Caceres in Buenos Aires October 16, 2010. REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian