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El Diego: help or hindrance?

June 5, 2010

More than just a man -

Few professional footballers have experienced half of the ups and downs of Diego Armando Maradona. Like a Rottweiler on acid, El Diego has furiously squeezed in more drugs, goals, expulsions and heart attacks than seems humanly possible for a man still in his 40s.

In a simultaneously glittering and grubby career, his genius yielded a World Cup and the greatest goal of all time, while his darker side has given us the Hand of God, drug bans and wounded journalists.

Now, despite his God-like status in Argentina – largely thanks to his monumental performances at the victorious 1986 World Cup – huge question marks hang over his ability to bring the best out of his side in South Africa.

Argentina scraped through the South American qualifying marathon, suffering their biggest ever defeat along the way – a 6-1 tonking in Bolivia. Maradona called up 108 players during the stuttering campaign, with their ticket to South Africa only sealed thanks to late winners in their last two games.

After the final game – a 1-0 defeat of Paraguay – Maradona took out his frustration on the press pack who until that point had made his life hell. “Suck it and keep on sucking it,” he told them. FIFA subsequently banned him from “all footballing activity” for two months.

A relative novice to top-flight coaching (he collected a total of just three wins in 23 games at two Argentine clubs before taking the top job), his selections and tactics have caused bafflement and dismay in equal measure to the media in Argentina and beyond.

The general consensus is that Maradona is clueless as a manager, getting this far only because is squad is littered with world-class players. Like the ever-pilloried French coach Raymond Domenech, many argue that his team has succeeded in spite of, rather than because of his efforts.

Critics label his management style as wild-eyed exuberance rather than cold efficiency – undoubtedly, Maradona has none of the pragmatism and tactical nous of his contemporaries Dunga of Brazil and Marcello Lippi of Italy.

But could this chest-beating style – sending the boys out to just go out and play – actually benefit his side in a knockout tournament?

South America’s notoriously arduous qualifying process (each team plays a whopping 18 games) suits the more cautiously-minded. Grinding out draws away from home and making your own ground a fortress are the order of the day – outcomes ill-suited to Diego’s gung-ho style.

A tournament, however, where the winner must get through a group then navigate just four emotion-fuelled games, could suit Maradona’s unpredictability to a tee.

Like in 1986, his footballing genius and frenzied national pride could galvanise his prodigiously talented team to great things. In Messi, they have the world’s best player, and in captain Javier Mascherano, and centre-half Walter Samuel they have a granite-like defensive spine.

Only Maradona knows why he left out Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, Samuel’s club mates and fellow Champions League winners at Inter. Nor is it easy to explain the presence of 36-year-old striker Martin Palermo.

Pragmatism usually triumphs over attacking flamboyance, as demonstrated by Italy at the last World Cup. But occasionally, the team that throws caution to the wind can ride a tidal wave of joie-de-vivre all the way to the title.

Maradona has promised to run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires should his team return with the trophy. While that image is enough to will them to fail, it would not be a great surprise to see substantially more than the Hand of God after the final on July 11.

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