Should Don Julio stick with Maradona?

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 the Netherlands.

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 quality.

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 successful leader?

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.


3 comments about "Should Don Julio stick with Maradona?".
  1. Matthew Martin, October 15, 2009 at 8:30 a.m.

    Germany was young and had modest expectations for WC 2006. With all due respect your logic is part of why the media continues to ruin the game by trying to lay the blame for a given failure like Germany's loss to Italia at the feet of ONE PERSON like Klinsmann instead of celebrating what a beautiful match the OT Match with Italia was! Do you believe Klinsmann could have better coached his team to prevent an inch perfect Pirlo pass to Grosso for an equally ridiculous shot? You have great points as always but you BURY good efforts and wonderful moments in your attempt to get your point across. Isn't it enough to say that players with little experience coaching will struggle with all the responsibility of a national coaching position? Must you throw good efforts under the bus? Most of us are knowledgable enough to know that coaching is complicated. Stick to strategy and tactical analysis or lack thereof as a reason for criticism. Have you broken down Maradona's player selection or formation execution or how his teams move on the pitch - you know, the kind of seasoned analysis one would expect from a seasoned soccer journalist? The way I see it, you just fielded a ridiculously weak article and I think you just LOST BIG! A lot of fluff about OTHER FAILED PLAYERS turned coach.....This is not an intelligent reason to keep or fire Maradona! How would you like your future determined by how someone else did in SLIGHTLY similar but then again DIS-SIMILAR circumstances? You have fielded some excellent articles in the past and I know you understand the game BUT YOU BETTER STEP IT UP because more articles like this will have us fans calling for your head! Oh, wait, I forgot - you aren't judged by your results!

  2. Ian Plenderleith, October 15, 2009 at 8:41 a.m.

    Klinsmann was hailed as a hero because the German team was compared with the miserable failures of Euro 2004, not the functional, trophy-winning teams of the the previous three decades. Just three months before that World Cup, there were widespread calls for JK's head after Germany were hammered 4-1 by Italy. The adventurous, attacking play in the finals was way above German expectations in a fine summer when the nation surprised both itself and outsiders with its genial openness and positive patriotism. The team's play reflected the self-discovery of a generation born long after the end of World War 2.

    As for Maradona, it will be great for journalists looking for drama if he stays. For soccer, and in particular Argentine soccer, it will be a disaster. For the national team, the momentum of Maradona's long-past heroics is exhausted. His volatile, passion-led 'coaching' will be further exposed by teams far better than Peru.

  3. Edvin Hernandez, October 15, 2009 at 9:14 a.m.

    Hi Paul,

    I was starting to loose interest in your articles. This one puts you back at the top of my list again, please keep them coming.

    I am interested in your statement that "the thing about coaching is that you never know". I thought coaches always did know and now you have me scratching my head. May be on a future article you can elaborate more on this. You just gave hope to all that support Maradona as coach but are deep inside scare having him at the helm of the team.

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