Argentina's Indomitable Deity
Saturday, March 28, 2009
BUENOS AIRES -- When Lionel Messi, the man many consider the best soccer player in the world, arrived at the Argentine national team's practice facility Thursday, the commotion was considerable. Fans gathered outside the gated complex and surrounded his silver SUV in a jubilant mass, snapping photographs and begging for autographs.
Then a few minutes later, Diego Maradona pulled up in a black Mini Cooper. The short 48-year-old had graying stubble, tattooed forearms and a thick waist. Grown men emitted high, soft noises that expressed an emotion somewhere between reverie and helplessness. Journalists ran unabashed toward the driver. A man barked at the security guards who tried to pry him loose from the windshield. "Thank you, Diego," one man repeated. "Thank you."
No matter how talented or exciting Argentina's soccer players are this year, the story of this season has been indisputably about one man: Maradona, the nation's living legend and soccer god, who has assumed responsibility as the coach of the storied national team. His presence on the sidelines in many ways is as remarkable as any of his feats on the field, where he led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup championship and won, along with Brazilian star Pelé, the award for best player of the 20th century.
That's because Maradona is a former cocaine addict who was kicked out of the 1994 World Cup for doping, had his stomach stapled to battle obesity and suffered a life-threatening heart attack, is an outspoken admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, once shot an air rifle at reporters and is a man whom polls showed a majority of Argentines did not want to coach their national team.
"I am in a place that a year ago, I didn't believe I would be in," Maradona told reporters Thursday.
But even this comeback is typical Maradona, who has called coaching the national team a lifelong dream.
"Maradona always rises from the ashes like a phoenix," said Julio Chiappetta, a sportswriter for Argentina's Clarin newspaper. "He's always had this ability. When everything has been lost, when no solution is at hand, Maradona, with his inner strength -- so great, so energetic, so vigorous -- he comes out on top once again."
Maradona faces his first big test as coach Saturday, when Argentina plays Venezuela in a World Cup 2010 qualifying match here. In two earlier exhibition matches, Maradona led Argentina to victory over Scotland and France. The wins have fueled enthusiasm for the team, but many acknowledge it is too early to judge Maradona's coaching abilities. His brief tenure in two previous coaching jobs in the mid-1990s with Argentine professional teams was undistinguished.
And he has now encountered his first real controversy: One of the team's stars, Juan Román Riquelme, abruptly resigned this month and said differences with Maradona made it impossible for the two to work together. Even Pelé has gotten in a shot. "A great player is not always a good coach," he said.
Many of the Argentine players, however, seem thrilled to be playing under a legend.
"He was the greatest in the world," Javier Zanetti, a veteran national team player, said at the practice facility Thursday. "And today for him to be coach, it's a very beautiful thing for us."
As with any soccer-loving nation, the Argentines grieve defeats of their national team as if they were deaths in the family. This pain, plus Maradona's volatile off-the-field career, has left many fans wary of falling too quickly for their new leader.