Soccer's Bad Boy Returns as Argentina's World Cup Coach

Soccer's Bad Boy Returns as Argentina's World Cup Coach

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After a decade-long retirement, Diego Maradona, the Argentine soccer legend, has returned to the field to coach his country’s team in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Maradona, now 49, was soccer’s first media bad boy— a scandal-prone talent who could be counted on to furnish the European and South American press with endless grist.

The other soccer superstars with attitudes, tattoos, and earrings who followed— David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo— seem mere echoes, their antics on and off the field replays of the mischief Maradona already burned into soccer’s collective memory.

For better or worse, the Maradona highlight reel looms over the sport.

On Saturday, for example, the United States played England, and the English goalie botched a relatively easy save, clumsily fumbling the ball into the goal, allowing the underdog Americans to tie the game. The next day an English tabloid dubbed the incident “Hand of Clod.”

Soccer fans would know instantly that the quip is not original, but an allusion to Maradona’s line about his notorious goal against England in the quarterfinals of a World Cup 24 years ago in Mexico.

In that game, Maradona leapt to contest a ball near the goal, and coming up against the limits of his diminutive stature, punched it into the goal with his fist. The referee didn’t spot the handball, and Argentina won the game 2-1.

Asked later if it had been a handball, Maradona declared straight-faced it had been the “hand of God.”

However, this same gold-chain decorated midfielder who cheated to score one goal, also delivered a score in the same game considered the most brilliant World Cup score ever. It was a one-man dribbling assault from half-field with a perfect finish. Maradona led Argentina to win that World Cup.

Glory and shame, in equal measures— that has been Maradona’s legacy.

So, understandably, Argentines greeted his 2008 appointment as head coach with a mix of emotions.

During the broadcast of Argentina’s opening 1-0 win against Nigeria last week, the ESPN announcer described these reactions as oscillating between “horror and joy.” He was right—Argentines felt horror because Maradona has a proven capacity to cause collateral damage with his combustible personality. But there was also joy, or at least hope. All Argentines want to see their soccer legend rehabilitate his image, and by extension—his country’s.

After all, Maradona’s fortunes do coincide with Argentina’s. When Maradona was at his best and led his team to the1986 World Cup, Argentina was still buoyed by the optimism surrounding the country’s return to democracy three years before.

Conversely, when Maradona was at his obese, drug-addled nadir in the late 1990s and early 2000s, democracy’s promise had worn thin, and Argentina was a corruption-riddled economic basket case, limping along ever since.

I sighted Maradona once in 2002, at the arrivals terminal of Ezeiza airport outside Buenos Aires. He was a heavyset figure in a yellow T-shirt and shin-length camouflage shorts, lurching through a phalanx of reporters. A film of sweat on his face reflected camera lights, and he had two or three chins dawdling below his goatee, not to mention a huge protruding gut.

Maradona’s downward spiral had begun with his ejection from the 1994 World Cup in the United States, when he tested positive for ephedrine. He began putting on weight, and there were altercations and legal troubles all over the world, not to mention stints in Cuban drug rehabilitation clinics. Then came a 2004 hospital stay in Buenos Aires when Maradona’s cocaine-taxed heart came close to giving out.

This scrape with death seemed to trigger a resurrection. Maradona had gastric bypass surgery. He lost weight and, Oprah-style, had a coming out party for his new slim self on Argentine TV, in a widely watched television program called “La Noche del 10.” Celebrities and sports stars from Argentina and Europe appeared on the show to reminisce and pay their respects to “el Diego,” the inimitable number 10.

There have been relapses into bad behavior since (a 2006 bar fight involving a local beauty queen in Bora Bora comes to mind), but Maradona has on the whole kept it together. That’s why two years ago Argentine Soccer Federation boss Julio Grondona gave the nod, and Maradona took over the national side.

Maradona’s World Cup roster includes Barcelona star Lionel Messi, the best player in the world right now, a definite candidate to Maradona-scale fame. Like Maradona, Messi is small, a compact package of speed, grit, and dazzling skill. However, to achieve lasting recognition, Messi has to lead his team to a World Cup.

And for that to happen, Maradona must inspire the youthful Messi to play at his best, and then some.

During Argentina’s World Cup 2010 debut against Nigeria, a stocky Maradona emerged onto the sidelines in gray suit, a silvery tie, and black dress shoes, obviously trying hard to exude seriousness.

His cool sartorial pose helped only marginally, since he yelled his way through the game, throwing his hands up in the air and clutching his head at referees’ calls.

Then, a moment came when soccer fans all over the world were reminded of Maradona’s eerie ability. The ball happened to go out of bounds near his feet and with a deft flick of his leather-encased toes Maradona looped the ball into the waiting hands of a Nigerian player for a free throw.

Later, he did it again. Each time, Maradona, without breaking stride, effortlessly delivered a graceful little arc. It was Maradona in his element, which is to say with the ball at his feet.

Watching these simple kicks, it was easy to forget his boxy suit, his checkered past, even his chancy second act as head coach. He was pure soccer grace, an embodiment of the sport.

Argentina will resume its World Cup campaign tomorrow against South Korea. Whether Argentina wins the trophy or not, and however much of a nation-size burden he shoulders with his 5-feet four-inch frame, Maradona will never lose his sublime touch.