PRETORIA — The World Cup proved that Diego Maradona is no coaching genius. But nor was he the clown that some expected.
True, there were times when it wasn’t possible to observe the Argentine coach without humming the theme tune to Benny Hill. Picture, for example, the Argentine training session where Maradona pretended to beat up a member of his staff and theatrically acted as a target for his players to shoot a hail of balls at. He came out of it furiously rubbing the back of his head. Ho-ho, what a jester!
But as Argentina’s victories piled up, there seemed to be method in Maradona’s madness. No other team had Argentina’s swashbuckling flair. With Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez slotting in goals and world player of the year Lionel Messi supplying inspiration, passes and even leadership on the field it was possible to ignore the holes in Maradona’s defense and midfield and not second-guess his decision to leave defender Javier Zanetti and midfielder Esteban Cambiasso at home. Maradona’s strategy, if it can be called that, was to outscore not shut out opponents. “Permanently on the attack” is how he lovingly described Argentina’s style of play.
“We are here to give joy to the Argentines, to play as we like, in the way which makes us happy,” he said.
What fun, but naive too.
He smothered his players with hugs and kisses before and after games because he had little else to offer in terms of tactical wizardry. The instructions he barked in practice were of the “Come on! Look alive!” variety, not useful nuggets of strategic insight. He talked about the need for “sacrifice, blood and courage” from players, not about playing formations. His players, in turn, praised the value of his experience of having competed in four World Cups not his game plans — if, indeed, there were any.
“Nobody ever told me where to play. So, I shouldn’t have to tell Messi where to play either,” Maradona said in the best example of his let-them-get-on-with-it approach.
He made no apologies for it. In fact, after three group-stage wins, he was demanding apologies — “I’m not suggesting you drop your trousers, but it would be honest and great,” he said — from critics who had predicted that Argentina could only flop with the former cocaine addict in charge and waste its best chance in years of winning the World Cup that Maradona lifted as a player in 1986.
The upside of Maradona hogging the limelight in South Africa with his large personality and entertaining and provocative news conferences was that he deflected attention from Messi.
But the downside for Argentina was that Maradona failed, as he also did in World Cup qualifying, to make the most of Messi’s goalscoring abilities. Too often, Messi was starved of the passes that help to make him such a match-winner for his club, Barcelona. That forced Messi to go hunting deep in the midfield himself for the ball.
Because of Argentina’s inbuilt defensive frailties and Maradona’s lack of alternate plans B, C or D for when his A-plan — attack, attack, attack — failed to work, there was always the suspicion that Argentina’s exciting adventure could slam into the buffers if its forwards couldn’t score. Yet few suspected that Argentina and Maradona would be found out quite so starkly as they were by Germany.
German manager Joachim Loew is his own greatest admirer. But it is also true that he thoroughly outthought Maradona, executing his game plan brilliantly.
Messi’s attacking runs broke against the rocks of dogged, organized German defending, while the Argentine defense and Javier Mascherano in midfield were overwhelmed by the speed of the German forays.
Most importantly, the Germans played as a well-oiled team, finding each other with just the right pass at just the right time. Argentina, in contrast, looked like talented individuals who just happened to be wearing the same blue and white stripped jerseys.
This World Cup would not have been as much fun without Maradona, without the sight of him pacing as though he were still out on the field kicking every ball, living every emotion.
But it was always too much to expect that he would be the same genius as a coach as he was as Argentina’s greatest player.