Legacy on the line: Diego Maradona’s star-crossed term as Argentina manager

Legacy on the line: Diego Maradona’s star-crossed term as Argentina manager

Take a look at the great managers throughout history and you will find uniformity. Poise, steel and scholarliness: these are the hallmarks of the game’s outstanding bosses. As a player, Maradona embodied all three. As a manager, not so much.

On grass, he was lord of the earth, but Maradona’s relationship with the game was complicated – especially towards the end. Though he played with such frenetic brilliance, radiated such joy as he bubbled about the pitch, football also brought him pain – and not just the kind brought about by cortisone injections and overzealous defenders. He treated his psychosomatic state with the medicines on which so many of us rely: misdemeanour, indulgence and deceit.

Maradona’s continued presence within football after his retirement was, therefore, somewhat surprising. The uninitiated might expect a man who had lived under such cranium-crushing pressure for 20 years to take his millions and head for the hills as soon as he’d kicked his final ball. But after he retired from the playing side of the game in 1994 (although he would later return), Maradona flung himself almost immediately back into football, taking on a job as manager of Mandiyú alongside former teammate Carlos Fren. Soon the pair would relocate to Avellaneda where they would take charge of Racing Club. Neither venture brought success.

After briefly reviving his playing career with Boca Juniors, he withdrew from football – although certainly not from public life. As was inevitable, his health deteriorated upon his retirement. He underwent major surgery in 2005 and was in and out of rehab for the majority of the decade.

In a show of extraordinary commitment to his volatile brand, he also publicly expressed his support for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in this period. In short, he was as erratic in retirement as he was in his pomp. With this in mind, it’s fair to say that after 15 years without a trophy – the second-longest wait in the nation’s history at the time – the Argentinian FA’s appointment of a drug-addled, politically-questionable, borderline maniac was something of a left-field move, even if he was like a god in the country.

Under the management of Alfio Basile, Argentina drew six games in a row between June and September 2008, two friendlies and four World Cup qualifiers. A mainstay in Argentinian football, this was Basile’s second stretch as manager of the national team. The first lasted between 1991 and 1994 when Argentina twice won the Copa América. Maradona didn’t feature in either of Basile’s successful campaigns (he failed a drugs test in ’91 and withdrew following a falling out with teammates in ’93), but returned to the national team for the 1994 World Cup. Until his second stint, that was Basile’s last tournament with Argentina. Much more memorably in light of his wild-eyed, blood-curdling celebration against Greece, it was Maradona’s last as a player.

Shortly after the drawing streak in 2008, Basile looked to have turned things around. Victory over Uruguay lifted Argentina to 3rd place in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualification table – in the South American format, the top four teams qualify with the third entering a play-off. But up next for Basile’s Argentina was a reunion with their former manager Marcelo Bielsa in Santiago.

With Argentina having never lost to Chile in its entire history, a routine victory was expected. But a Bielsa masterclass ensued; a gorgeous flowing move was finished by Fabián Orellana and Chile’s 98-year drought was ended. For his part in the precious victory, Orellana would become known as El Histórico (the historic one). The response to the loss, as is so often the case in South America, was quasi-apocalyptic.

Basile – who had led Argentina to a Copa América final just a year earlier – jumped before he was pushed. The search for a new manager was underway. Carlos Bianchi, whose most recent position was with Atletico Madrid, was touted. So too was Diego Simeone, then of River Plate. But despite his squat frame, Maradona’s casts a long shadow in Argentina; when he threw his hat into the ring, there was only ever going to be one outcome.

El Diego’s first few games were an unreserved success. In his first match, a 1-0 victory over Scotland at Hampden Park, Maradona was given a hero’s welcome by a set of fans who clearly had fond memories of the Hand of God against the Auld Enemy in ’86. This was followed up by a 2-0 victory in France and then – in his first match on home soil – a 4-0 dismantling of Venezuela. In this, his first competitive match, the camera panned theatrically to him after every goal. But his celebrations that evening in Buenos Aires were uncharacteristically subdued. Was this the baptism of a new, more statesmanlike Diego? No chance.

After seven goals without reply in his first three matches, no one could have foreseen the unmitigated disaster that was the fourth. Uno; Moreno. Dos; Botero. Tres; da Rosa. Cuatro; Botero. Cinco; Botero. Seis; Torrico. Bolivia hit Argentina for six on April 1 2009. Unfortunately for Maradona and company, this was no April Fools. The high altitude in La Paz was no doubt a factor; Estadio Hernando Siles is 3637 metres above sea level, making it one of the highest professional stadiums in world football. Ángel Di María and Javier Mascherano both needed oxygen masks at different stages of the match, which finished 6-1 in Bolivia’s favour.

Maradona did not employ this excuse. He himself had campaigned for Bolivia’s right to stage games at La Paz. In protest against FIFA’s subsequently reversed ban on international football matches at an altitude of more than 2500 metres above sea level, Maradona took part in a charity game at Estadio Hernando Siles a little over a month before the 6-1 defeat. In their next match at the same venue, Bolivia lost 1-0 to Venezuela. In fact, they won just one of their next 23 matches. Thin air or not, Argentina’s collapse was unprecedented. 

In their next competitive game, Maradona’s Argentina staggered to victory against Colombia, but they lost their next three World Cup qualifiers leaving them in a judderingly precarious position with just two games left to play. Argentina were in fifth place on 22 points, a point behind Ecuador who occupied the final automatic qualification spot. Uruguay and Colombia were hot on their heels with 21 and 20 points respectively. With two games left, there was a real danger that Argentina would miss out on a first World Cup since 1970 – and under the stewardship of their greatest national hero too. Truly, Maradona’s legacy was on the line.

To qualify, they had to pray that Ecuador would slip. Then there was the daunting prospect of a short trip across the River Plate to face Uruguay in a box office showdown on the final matchday. But first, they’d have to dispatch with bottom of the table Peru. The spectacle that followed made South America rub its eyes in disbelief. It captured perfectly the madness that seems to subsume all things Maradona and was quite simply one of the most thrilling 90 minutes of football the gods of the game have ever bestowed upon us.

It was high drama even before a ball was kicked at El Monumental. Minutes before kick-off in Buenos Aires, Ecuador fumbled the chance to secure automatic qualification in their match against Uruguay. Diego Forlán scored a 93rd-minute winner from the spot to lift his side into 4th place and knock Argentina down to 6th, outside even the play-off spot. 

On the night, Maradona – who used a staggering 70 different players in his time as Argentina boss – selected the then-uncapped Gonzalo Higuaín ahead of Carlos Tevez and his own son in law, Sergio Agüero. Against the backdrop of a biblical downpour, the manager’s faith was justified. Higuaín gave Argentina the lead three minutes into the second-half seconds after Nobby Solano had thwacked the crossbar with a 25-yard volley at the other end.

There was a drip-drip of chances for Argentina in the remainder of the second, but they were unable to open the floodgates. As the clock ticked over to 90 minutes, the rain became so thick that television cameras barely picked up the thrust of Hernán Rengifo’s neck muscles that shook Argentina to its core. Maradona’s head was in his hands. 1-1 with only stoppage time left to play. World Cup qualification was slipping and sliding out of his grasp.

Forty-five minutes earlier when Argentina were still searching for an opener, Maradona elected to overlook Tevez and Agüero. He turned instead to 36-year-old Boca Juniors striker, Martín Palermo. Palermo had been recalled to the Argentina side by Maradona after a decade of absence. His last competitive goal came in the 1999 Copa América; Palermo was a prolific striker – he scored just shy of 300 goals in 610 appearances at club level – but his career had come to be defined by this tournament and one match in particular. To worldwide guffaw, he missed three penalties in one game as Argentina lost to Colombia. It was to his feet that the ball fell in the 92nd minute. In an instant, the three penalties were forgotten.

With joyful abandon, Maradona looked like a greased-up seal pup as he belly-slid across the soaking wet turf in celebration. His horizontal jubilation has become the most enduring image of his time as manager of La Albiceleste. Remarkably, this wasn’t the last moment of madness in a match that had grown wild to the point of parody. Straight from kick-off, Rainer Torres struck a shot one-in-a-million halfway line shot that beat Sergio Romero before nearly shattering the crossbar. Then the whistle went. The match was over. It was breathless. It was brilliant. It was pure Maradona.

He knew that a point in Uruguay would be enough to secure automatic qualification. In the end, they got three. The match itself was a typically barbarous Latin affair full of impulsive challenges and chest-beating. Uruguay finished the match with nine men and there were nine yellow cards in total. Argentina got the winner five minutes from time, stabbed in by Mario Bolatti after the ball fell into his path following a free-kick routine. It was only Bolatti’s second-ever senior goal; it remains his only one in an Argentina shirt. Maradona danced on the touchline and a banner in the stands read “Dios Gracias”: Thank you God.

FIFA, eyes bulging with imagined riches, were delighted. After all these years, Diego Maradona would be back at the World Cup – only this time there was no amount of ephedrine that could disbar him. Understated as ever, Maradona’s advice to the press in the immediate aftermath of his side’s qualification was that they should “suck it and keep on sucking it”. FIFA responded swiftly with a two-month ban.

Argentina’s results in the run-up to the World Cup were largely positive. They lost 2-1 to champions-elect, Spain, but won their remaining five friendlies, including a 1-0 victory over Germany and a 5-0 over Canada. Ahead of his 23-man squad announcement on May 20, he ran over a reporter’s foot before calling him an “arsehole” for getting in the way. The announcement itself was no less dramatic. There was no Esteban Cambiasso or Javier Zanetti. The pair would be leading lights in Inter Milan’s Champions League final victory just two days later.

Maradona’s press conferences in South Africa were as predictably unpredictable as the trajectory of a well-struck Jabulani. “My dog almost ate my mouth,” he explained as journalists questioned him on his new beard which turned out to be a cover-up for some fresh scars. After hearing that Michel Platini had criticised his ability as a coach, Maradona was prosaic: “We all know what the French are like.”

Argentina started the tournament reasonably with a 1-0 victory over Nigeria courtesy of a superman-esque diving header from Gabriel Heinze. As the vuvuzelas buzzed, so did Higuaín. His hat-trick earned Argentina a 4-1 victory over South Korea in their second match of the group stage. This was long before Maradona’s inductee would earn a reputation as a flopper on the international stage. All but qualified, La Albiceleste ensured they topped their group with a 2-0 victory over Greece on the final day of Group B. Messi was imperious that evening in Pietersburg, but there was growing concern that the man-made in Maradona’s image was yet to find the back of the net.

After a 3-1 win against Mexico in the first knockout game, Argentina were beginning to pull plaudits. The firepower in their line-up was unrivalled at the time; Messi, Tevez, Di Maria, Agüero and Milito starred for a top-heavy side, but one which was in no way short of bigwigs in other areas of the pitch. There were questions over the legitimacy of their first goal in the round-of-16 as Tevez looked well offside when he nodded in from a yard out. Maradona’s response was to point out that it was only as unjust as the referee’s refusal to discipline Mexican players for their constant kicking of Messi. In the end, they were worthy winners.

The quarter-finals beckoned, and it seemed that destiny had demanded the fixture. Argentina’s opponents were Germany, twice Maradona’s rivals in successive World Cup finals in 1986 and 1990. They were a young side, but one that – with the help of FIFA’s refusal to implement goalline technology – had demolished England 4-1 in the previous round. 

In the run-up to the match, Maradona spoke of it being the will of God that Argentina make it to the final. Perhaps that was tempting fate, or perhaps football is agnostic. With Bastian Schweinsteiger working the levers in midfield, Germany tore into a tactically naïve Argentinian side with complete irreverence for any edict from on high. They saw much less of the ball than their South American counterparts, but every counter-attack was executed with military precision. Miroslav Klose scored twice to move within one goal of Ronaldo’s all-time World Cup goalscoring record. Thomas Müller and Arne Friedrich also got in on the goals – it finished 4-0 to Germany. Maradona stood on the touchline, tears stinging his eyes.

It was a humiliating end to Maradona’s marriage with the Argentinian national team. There was talk of a new four-year deal in the wake of the World Cup, but it came to nothing. Maradona effectively left his post on July 27, 2010, after the Argentinian FA said his contract would not be renewed. He put his legacy on the line by going back to Argentina. While his semi-messianic status in the country meant that he could never be crushed, he risked the unconditional love of his people. But in the end, the whole journey was played out in the spirit of Maradona – it was as crackpot as it was compelling.