By Paul Gardner
Possibly Diego Maradona's achievement in leading Argentina to a berth at the 2010 World Cup makes him a good coach. There have been plenty of doubts
voiced on that topic ever since he was appointed national team coach nearly a year ago.
It seemed like a risky move, but it was engineered by Julio Grondona, the grand old man of
Argentine soccer, and no one tells Don Julio he's making a mistake. Well, not immediately, anyway.
The obvious objection to Diego as a coach was that he had no coaching experience worth
speaking of. If experience was important, then Maradona's appointment was laughable.
But there was evidence -- recent evidence -- that experience didn't matter all that much. Maybe having
been a player -- and having been one of the all-time great players in Maradona's case -- was enough. Maybe experience of the game, from the player's point of view, and knowledge of players' attitudes
and talents was enough.
That this might be so could be argued quite strongly in the cases of Juergen Klinsmann and Marco Van Basten. Two top players who had more or less retired from
active participation in the sport until -- quite suddenly -- they were both thrust into the coaching spotlight. Klinsmann would coach Germany in the 2006 World Cup, Van Basten would do the same for
And did those appointments work? In my opinion they did not. Klinsmann failed to get Germany any further than third place in the tournament that they were hosting. For a
world power like Germany, that has to be classed as a serious failure. Yet such is the crazy intangible world of coaching that Klinsmann was hailed as a hero.
Had Klinsmann been a
Brazilian coaching Brazil in a Brazil-hosted World Cup, I think his a third place finish would have been regarded as an appalling failure. But Klinsmann was then called on to take over at Germany's
top club, Bayern Munich, in 2008. This time, there could be no doubt that he flopped, failing to complete the season.
Van Basten did little better. His Netherlands team was knocked out of
the 2006 World Cup in the round of 16 by Portugal in a stormy match in which the violence was largely instigated by the Netherlands. In Euro 2008 the Netherlands then lost to Russia in the
quarterfinals. An unsuccessful year as coach of Ajax followed.
In short, the immediate precedents of Maradona's appointment do not offer much hope that Argentina will flourish under his
guidance. But the thing about coaching is that you never know. Last night's win in Montevideo -- a scary, edge-of-the-seat 1-0 ordeal for the Argentine fans -- will presumably save Maradona's job for
the moment. And now there lurks the suspicion that Maradona is a coach who can win the big one, who can come through when the odds are piled high against him.
After all, a winning goal
from an obscure substitute, Mario Bolatti? Maybe that was great coaching, to bring on the right sub at the right moment. Then again, maybe Bolatti would have been even more useful if he'd been on
earlier? Or maybe this was simply a piece of luck. Quite probably it was -- but the luck element cannot be discounted in coaching. Often it is a bit more than luck, it is instinct, a much rarer
If only coaching were the calm, cool, scientific process that its practitioners try to make out it is. If only it consisted of measurable skills which give predictable results.
But we know that is far from being the case. There are plenty of hard-working coaches who regularly lose their jobs.
The one measurable factor in a coach's activities comes in the W
column. How many games has he won? How many trophies? Is that a fair way to assess a coach? Of course it is. It may sound brutal, but in fact it is a constantly forgiving process. Because of all the
factors I've mentioned above -- particularly the one that says "in coaching you never know."
Even coaches with quite deplorable won-lost records get new jobs -- and not infrequently do
well. The reborn coach is as common a figure in the sport as the fired coach. Failure at Club A with that group of players at that time does not inevitably mean failure at Club B with this group of
players now. Pondering all that, you'd have to say that Diego Maradona has done the job he was hired to do -- he's qualified Argentina for the World Cup. Sure, it should never have come down to the
last -- very difficult -- game in Uruguay. It turned into a calvary, but he pulled it off.
So should he be kept on, to coach Argentina in South Africa? I'd have to say that everything
that's logical and common-sensical says No. There were times in this qualifying campaign when Maradona showed signs of simply not having a clue what he was doing. A lapse like that would be fatal in
the cauldron of a short tournament.
But he eventually triumphed. Or he and his players did -- they have been through an arduous campaign with him as their leader. Do you drop the
A difficult decision for Don Julio, and one not made any easier by the knowledge that two other more experienced Argentine coaches have been much more successful than
Maradona. Gerardo Martino has coached Paraguay to qualification, and Marcelo Bielsa has done the same for Chile -- both teams finishing ahead of Argentina.