x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Maradona is the bad boy Wasl are hoping will come good

With Diego Maradona's desire to coach his native Argentina again strong, this stint in Dubai may be just what the legend needs.

Diego Maradona celebrates his last World Cup goal against Greece in 1994.
Diego Maradona celebrates his last World Cup goal against Greece in 1994.

Milly Carlucci was becoming anxious. There were less than 24 hours to go before her television show was due to go out live. And the most famous performer on it had still not boarded his trans-Atlantic, cross-hemisphere flight from Buenos Aires to Rome.

"The real suspense," Carlucci quietly told various executives, producers and heavily mascaraed dancers, "is never about who's going to win Dancing With The Stars, but if Diego Maradona's going to turn up."

On that day, some five and half years ago, Maradona never made his connection, and, for the umpteenth time in his many careers, Diego Armando Maradona left his colleagues and companions frustrated, but strangely sympathetic; tantalised and infuriated.

Maradona appearing on Dancing With The Stars, a huge hit on Italian small screens, had been one of the more bizarre ideas in the first place: The man had been close to death barely a year earlier, according to his doctor. But Maradona had taken to it superbly, with a childish enthusiasm, charming Italians who, in his days as a footballer, had been united in admiring his talent but divided in loathing (if you were from the north of Italy) and loving (if you were from Naples in the south) his personality.

Back then, at the beginning of what might be called the renaissance of Maradona, a period which dates from early 2005, the question of what the greatest footballer of the last 30 years might do with himself in middle-age scarcely got asked. It was genuinely doubted he would reach 50 years old, as he did last October.

It certainly seemed no less likely that he would be paid handsomely to tango on Italian state television than he would don a tracksuit and coach a professional football team.

"I don't think I could teach other players to do things that nobody but I can do," he once said when asked, close to the end of an eventful playing career, about the possibility of going into management.

The issue of whether or not Maradona is a good coach depends on whom you talk to. Some of Argentina's best current footballers praise aspects of his work; others find it harder to. But the possibility that Al Wasl have recruited somebody who will do more than simply inspire because of his reputation, attract attention because of his fame, and keep their executives slightly nervous every time he is due to catch a return flight from Argentina to Dubai, is certainly far more open than it was two years ago.

Maradona led Argentina to the quarter-finals of the last World Cup, a competition to which he had guided them when at one point their very qualification for the finals had been in jeopardy.

And when he left the job soon after the tournament, he seemed genuinely bereft. He wanted to manage Argentina and he still hopes to coach them again one day. To that extent, he has caught the management bug.

Football is Maradona's benevolent addiction. There have been other, malign ones in his picaresque life. He has taken some bad drugs, from the excess of cortisone given to him by sports professionals who should have known better during the 1980s, when he was the hardest footballer on earth to defend against and so he got brutally kicked and injured; to the cocaine addiction he, six years ago, said he had thwarted for good; to the banned stimulant that was found in his urine sample after a World Cup finals match for Argentina in 1994.

For that he was banned, and never played for his country again. His body has certainly suffered: Two heart attacks in the past decade are not the orthodox dividend that an athlete yields from a career running about outdoors.

Opponents started kicking Maradona's ankles before he was even a teenager. He was a prodigy, whose talent took him out of poverty in the suburbs of Buenos Aires to idolatry among, first, supporters of Boca Juniors and then of Argentina.

He was left out, controversially, of his country's triumphant 1978 World Cup squad because he was only 17 at the time. By 21, he was coveted by the big hitters and big-payers of European club football and on his way to Barcelona.

The game marvelled at his balance, his ball control, his imagination as a player, but they also detected the rogue in him. He would be sent off in the later stages of the 1982 World Cup, frustrated at the close, vicious attentions of Brazilian opponents.

By the time of Maradona's next World Cup, Italy, more specifically Naples, had become home and Argentina would be the place where he gained the status of deity, as captain and inspiration of the world champions. He towered over the 1986 World Cup.

One goal, against England, is often called the finest of the 20th century, closely followed by one scored three days later against Belgium. Jorge Valdano, who played centre-forward for Argentina, a foil to Maradona's No 10, would say of him: "Beyond everything else, no ball ever had a better experience than when it was at his left foot."

Ask Peter Beardsley, Peter Reid, Terry Fenwick or Terry Butcher, England players all bamboozled on the way to that goal of the century at the Azteca Stadium.

The other goal against England also sticks in the collective memory, the first in Argentina's 2-1 quarter-final victory. England's Steve Hodge slices a clearance, Maradona, all 5ft 5ins of him, jumps with goalkeeper Peter Shilton to meet the ball and scores, the contact out of sight of referee or linesmen. Shilton knows what replays would confirm: it is handball. Maradona cheated to score it.

He has ever since glossed the notorious incidence with a quasi-political justification. England had been at war with Argentina in the years before that match. In his autobiography, Maradona would put the goal explicitly in the context of the times: "Before the match we all declared that football didn't have anything to do with the Falklands Conflict. That was a lie.

"We hardly thought of anything else. A lot of Argentinian boys had been killed over there. This was revenge. He who robs a thief gets 100 years of pardons."

The man-of-the-people rebel was a persona Maradona would adopt again and again. Playing for Napoli, whom he helped to two Serie A triumphs, he enjoyed cocking a snook at the northern giants of the Italian game, Juventus and the Milan clubs.

In Italy's south, he also broke the law, would be pursued later for unpaid taxes; in Naples, he maintained friendships with people associated with mafia groups. After retiring, Maradona found other ways to advertise his anti-establishment instincts. He would rail against western capitalism and George W Bush. He briefly made his home in Fidel Castro's Cuba.

That was 10 years ago, when his struggle to find fulfilment as a former player appeared most pronounced, and his health problems became most threatening.

Maradona the footballer had failed his first dope test in 1991, and that was the end of his Napoli days. He briefly joined Sevilla, then Newell's Old Boys in Argentina, but these were cameos in the story of an athlete in decline, as were the bright touches he showed at the start of the 1994 World Cup. When he made his first attempts at coaching, they went badly. Argentina's Deportivo Mandiyu, provincial over-spenders, took him on. They were threatened by relegation. Under Maradona, they dropped.

The images remembered best from that episode remain those of a splenetic Maradona cursing a referee: "You're a robber and a liar!"

He was then offered another gig coaching at Racing Avellaneda in the top flight and lost his grip on it after succumbing to his drug and alcohol addictions.

His comeback from that point is quite something. There are several Maradonas whom Al Wasl might be seen to be appointing: the ex-addict, the famous handballer, the unstable bad-boy, the little tango specialist from Dancing With The Stars, or the once brilliant, captivating genius of an inside forward.

But the most recent, the most relevant, is Diego Maradona, the former head coach of Argentina, the team who reached the last eight at the last World Cup.

sports@thenational.ae

 

Diego Maradona profile and key numbers

Diego Maradona

¦ Born October 30, 1960, in Lanus, Buenos Aires (Argentina)
¦ Position midfielder

Playing career
(League games only)
¦ Argentinos Juniors 167 games, 115 goals
¦ Boca Juniors 40 games, 28 goals
¦ Barcelona 36 games, 22 goals
¦ Napoli 188 games, 81 goals
¦ Sevilla 26 games, 5 goals
¦ Newell’s Old Boys 7 games
¦ Boca Juniors 30 games, 7 goals
¦ Argentina 91 games, 34 goals

Managerial career
¦ Deportivo Mandiyu (1994)
Won 1, Drawn 5, Lost 6
¦ Racing Avellaneda (1995)
Won 2, Drawn 3, Lost 6
¦ Argentina (2008-2010)
Won 14, Lost 5
¦ Al Wasl (2011)

Numbers

4 World Cup finals he has played in, 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994
6.9 million pounds (Dh41m), Napoli paid Barca for him in 1984
13 per cent, Maradona’s win ratio as a club football manager
30 number of months suspended from football for drug use
43 goals scored in 45 games in 1980 for Argentinos Juniors