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Why not Maradona?
by Paul Gardner, October 30th, 2008 7AM

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Preposterous! Diego Maradona the coach of Argentina? What can they be thinking? The guy has virtually no coaching experience, after all -- so does this make any sense?

Well, why not? Before deciding whether there's any logic to the appointment, it might be as well to consider whether there's any logic to coaching. And, of course, there is not.

Coaching is a profession, a business, a passion, an affliction, a career -- call it any of those things ... but never call it a science. Because, despite decades of concerted attempts by the coaches themselves to give their job the assurance and certainties that a scientific base would bring, they frankly haven't a clue what they're talking about.

Coaching is as much -- no, make that more -- about luck and gut-feeling and voodoo as it is about planned tactics and elaborate training routines. Maradona's lack of experience does not seem an obstacle to me. Juergen Klinsmann had no coaching experience when he took over Germany, nor had Marco van Basten when he became coach of the Netherlands. Yet both did well. And Franz Beckenbauer should never have been given the job of coaching Germany -- he had no experience, but he won the 1990 World Cup. Even worse, he had no coaching license.

The license, of course, is intended as the ultimate proof that coaching is an exact science. Does Maradona have one? I've no idea -- I'm not sure when he would have had the time to get one. I rather hope he doesn't have one. Any licensing system brings a certain rigidity with it, a conforming to syllabuses, a homogenization of knowledge. Maradona, as a player, never conformed. Better he shouldn't do so as a coach. Anyway, if he has Carlos Bilardo as his assistant, he will have more than enough of the scientific side of soccer.

Maradona has said the right things. He has scoffed at the lack of experience -- "It makes me laugh," he says, pointing out that he played for nearly 20 years with the national team, and has been close to it for longer. I like, too, his opinion that "Soccer hasn't changed, I don't think there's anything there that can surprise me."

If there are arguments against Maradona the coach, I do not see them coming from his lack of experience. He will deal with that. His intemperate personality seems more open to question, but any one who has watched more than a few EPL games and seen the coaches at work on the sidelines -- where not a few of them appear to be quite demented -- may well wonder how important it is to be calm and collected.

Above all, Maradona has spoken about the players. Surely -- simply because he has no coaching experience -- he will be a players' coach, or maybe simply a player in coach's clothing. With most of the world's teams, that would not do. With Argentina, it may work out just fine. For Argentina has a wealth of talented players at the moment. They play superb soccer, and they all play it in the Argentine style. The raw material is there for a World Cup-winning team. If it is inspiration, or leadership, that has been lacking - and Alfio Basile's record of eking out six ties in the last eight games suggests that something, but maybe not too much, has been absent -- then again, I would ask, why not Maradona?

Difficulties will surface, you can be sure of that, if the results do not go well. Maradona is surely aware of what happened to Hugo Sanchez in Mexico -- another national idol who took over the national team and, having failed to produce either a winning or a stylish team, found himself cast aside.

What worked cruelly against Sanchez was his constant boasting that he was the man for the job. Maradona has been less noisy on that score -- but he is very definitely a man who has a public life, and it's a life that means so much to virtually every Argentine.

Maradona, the slum kid, the battler, the irrepressible player, the survivor, has come to be more than a soccer player. His agonizing battles with drugs and alcohol, his close-call with death, his willingness to speak his mind, to criticize the big guys -- I'm thinking of FIFA here -- and to suffer the consequences have added to the legend. He represents Argentine values, the Argentine spirit, the Argentine soul. He is that important -- and he is that adored.

Polls conducted in Argentina seem to show that not many people there agree that Maradona's appointment will work. I don't believe that. I was in Argentina in 1978, before the World Cup, and everyone was pessimistic -- they said -- about Argentina's chances. Yet Argentina won the Cup, and the pessimism vanished -- if indeed, it had ever been anything more than a flimsy cover for a vibrant hope they preferred to conceal -- not wishing to tempt fate, no doubt.

I like the Maradona appointment -- precisely because he lacks all the scientific trimmings of the modern coach. Let Bilardo deal with all of that. Maradona will go with his instincts, the instincts of one of the greatest players the world has ever seen. And this is a wonderful moment for him to employ his Argentine instincts to bring the best out of a wonderful crop of Argentine players.



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