For Argentines, a coach is a legend and a letdown


POSTED: Sunday, October 18, 2009

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA—Argentines woke up Thursday feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from their collective shoulders. After a 1-0 victory over Uruguay, Argentina's soccer team qualified for the World Cup in South Africa next summer, despite growing doubts that coach Diego Maradona could lead it there.

But Argentines also awoke to the realization that the team would still be coached by Maradona, the soccer idol known worldwide simply as Maradona, whose brilliant playing career made him a national hero but whose erratic tenure as coach has become a source of national dread. Argentines fear that in one downward swoop, they could lose two symbols of national pride: the glorious legend of Maradona as well as the nation's standing as a global soccer power.

“;The Argentines that believed that Maradona could infect the players with the winning magic that's rooted in his luminous past don't believe that now, after having built up excessive expectations,”; said Roberto Di Giano, a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires.

“;What could lift the country now,”; he said, “;would be if he could win the World Cup”; and “;feed our delusions of grandeur.”;

That is a lot of national aspiration riding on Maradona's shoulders. Argentina has not had much in the way of grandeur lately.

This decade, Argentina has suffered through its worst financial crisis in a century, and more recently it has been plagued by incessant strikes by farm groups. The government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has scared away foreign investors with untrustworthy economic figures and heavy subsidies for food and fuel, and it has moved to exercise more control over the media. Then there is the nagging sense that neighboring Brazil, which has discovered vast oil deposits and won the 2016 Summer Olympics, is becoming an ever more important global player while Argentina is lagging behind, political analysts and sociologists said.

But soccer has long been sacred and Argentina's spot in the world's most important competitions always assured. Maradona, 48, who grew up in a Buenos Aires shantytown, is among the greatest players ever in the game. Since he led the national team to a World Cup championship in 1986, he has been treated as a demigod, and many Argentines firmly believe that his playing genius was the result of divine inspiration.

His early years and international career from 1979 to 1994, much of it in Spain and Italy, gave Argentines a rousing distraction from a brutal dictatorship and a failed war with Britain, the rebirth of democracy and periodic financial crises. It was also a time when soccer went global, and Maradona's transfer to Barcelona FC in 1982, when he was 21, cost a record $7.3 million.

“;In this context, Maradona was the perfect hero in cultural terms,”; said Pablo Alabarces, an Argentine sociologist and author of books on soccer and popular culture. And despite the Argentine media's almost obsessive search for Maradona's heir, “;it isn't something that is repeatable today.”;

Still, he is a flawed character, a substance abuser who struggled with the trappings of stardom and bristled at criticism. Aside from persistent problems with cocaine, Maradona tested positive for the stimulant ephedrine during the 1994 World Cup and was banned from the tournament.

Nonetheless, when Argentina's national coach resigned last fall, Julio Grondona, the president of the Argentine Football Association, appointed Maradona. As much as they loved him as a player, most Argentines thought he was spectacularly ill-suited to coach, as he had virtually no coaching experience.

Since he took over the team, it has won four matches and lost four, despite having standout international stars like Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez. The team became a revolving door for Maradona's indecision and experimentation; only Messi played in all eight of the matches that Maradona coached.

After losses to Paraguay and Brazil in September, with his team in seeming chaos, Maradona shocked the nation by flying to Italy for 11 days to go to a weight-loss spa. His doctor said the treatment had been planned ahead of time.

Maradona's star sank even further, and a malaise swept the country. His failure as a coach not only was tarnishing his status as national icon, but also was on the verge of depriving Argentina of the right to play in the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.

Then in a remarkable game on Oct. 10, a bit of the old luster returned. In a match against a scrappy Peruvian team, amid a blinding rain and ball-tossing wind, Martin Palermo chipped in the winning goal for Argentina in the final minute. Maradona promptly did a belly flop on the drenched field in Buenos Aires before burying his head in Palermo's chest, sobbing and hugging him for several minutes.

On Wednesday, the team edged past Uruguay, and Maradona gloated at a post-match news conference, refusing to take any responsibility for the team's struggles and lashing out at journalists “;who treated me like garbage.”;

Using sexual vulgarities, he also said, “;All those that said anything against me, keep eating your words.”;

On Friday, Joseph Blatter, the president of FIFA, world soccer's governing body, said it would open an investigation into Maradona's statements for possible disciplinary action, according to press reports.

Gustavo Sorange, 47, a carpenter from General Juan Madariaga, southeast of Buenos Aires, said some of his friends were so disillusioned with Maradona that they rooted for Uruguay.

“;They didn't want Argentina to win because of Maradona,”; he said, stunned at the betrayal. “;That's the way things are here in Argentina. You win well, you play beautifully. And if you don't, then you're not good for anything.”;