x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Maradona the big fish in Marseille

At the Stade Velodrome, it will be difficult to tell who the home manager is. On one bench, you will find Raymond Domenech, the most unpopular man in French football. On the other, Diego Maradona, whose acclaim transcends national boundaries.

Argentina's coach Diego Maradona faces reporters in Marseille ahead of the friendly against France.
Argentina's coach Diego Maradona faces reporters in Marseille ahead of the friendly against France.

At the Stade Velodrome tonight, it will be difficult to tell who the home manager is. On one bench, you will find Raymond Domenech, the most unpopular man in French football. On the other, Diego Maradona, whose acclaim transcends national boundaries. Any boos and whistles in Marseille will be for Domenech, the man held responsible by France fans for Les Bleus' humiliatingly early exit at Euro 2008.

Somehow he kept his job - but he has done nothing to improve his standing since. France's chances of qualifying for the World Cup next summer hang in the balance after picking up just four points from their opening three games. Divisive, prickly and willing to say anything to save his own skin, the 57-year-old former Lyon manager is seen as the problem, not the solution. The contrast with Maradona couldn't be starker.

A global icon and source of national pride, Maradona took the job last October amid promises of a fresh start for the underachieving Albicelestes. "El Pibe de Oro", now 48, commands immediate respect because of his achievements as a player. His managerial style recalls Kevin Keegan in his Newcastle pomp - all slaps on backs and encouraging barks, with his players at the centre of all he does. But a steeliness emerges when he talks about the job.

"Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo had their moments as Argentina manager, and I want mine," he said on Monday. "I want to be genuine, I want to be myself. I don't want to be like anybody else. Every day I wake up and ask myself how I can improve the team. I think of nothing else." Domenech's utterances tend to be more cryptic - yet he has had little to say in the build-up to this match. But then, France's results on the road to South Africa 2010 so far - a 3-1 defeat in Austria, a 2-1 win in Serbia and a 0-0 draw in Romania - are hardly the sort to draw attention to.

Maradona's new career started more brightly with a 1-0 win in Scotland, a country that's feted him ever since his controversial goal against England in 1986. Following that victory last November he embarked on a tour of Europe, meeting players face-to-face and watching dozens of games. He's attacking the job with the same zeal he used to apply to hurdling defenders. Aside from the general warmth the football world feels at Maradona's second coming, however, there's a more parochial reason why the visiting manager can expect a rapturous welcome tonight. In 1989, when Maradona was the world's greatest player, the Olympique de Marseille president Bernard Tapie launched an audacious bid to sign him from Napoli. The transfer fell through, but Marseille fans never forgot that the little genius was keen to move to France's second city.

Twenty years on, Maradona has finally arrived in Marseille - where he'll be treated like one of their own. jeastham@thenational.ae