Thursday, July 1, 2010

Crazy Like a Fox

I admit it. I've been waiting for Diego Armando Maradona, and, by extension, Argentina to implode at some point in this World Cup. It seemed inevitable, didn't it? It still might happen, but even if it does Maradona has proven many of us wrong. And in his success may be some lessons from which all of us can learn.

For the uninitiated, Maradona (one of those one-name players that are indigenous to soccer) is one of the greatest players of all-time, mentioned in the same breath with Pele, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, and very few others. He almost single-handedly (pun intended) led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, beating West Germany 3-2 in the Final. His most memorable performance of that tournament was in the quarterfinals, where Argentina avenged the indignities inflicted on it in the Falklands and defeated England 2-1. Maradona scored both goals in that match which are two of the most memorable goals in history -- the first the infamous Hand of God goal, and the second which was (sixteen years later) recognized as the "Goal of the Century".

Off the field, however, Maradona was a mess. Addictions to cocaine and alcohol stunned his abilities and bloated his body. After his playing career ended he became nearly unrecognizable because he gained so much weight. He went to Cuba twice for drug and alcohol rehab, and nearly died in 2004 after he suffered a heart attack due to a cocaine overdose. His family at one point tried to have him declared legally incompetent. Two brief forays into coaching at the club level in the mid-90's resulted in a dismal combined record of three wins, eight ties, and twelve losses.

Despite his personal life, Maradona remained an icon in Argentina. When Argentina struggled in the qualifying tournament for the 2010 World Cup Maradona offered himself as a candidate to replace the resigned coach and was astonishingly chosen. He managed to eke Argentina into the Finals and chose to celebrate the occasion by berating the press.

Argentina did not enter this tournament as a favorite, partly because of its mediocre qualifying campaign, and partly because Maradona was regarded as a tactically naive coach and a manager who was more concerned with his own success than that of his players.

Maradona and his team, however, have proven the pundits wrong. Not only are they one of two teams to win every game up to this point (Germany being the other), but they've done it with style and flair, scoring the most goals of any national in the Finals. Maradona struts the sidelines during every match, pleading, cajoling, complaining, and, whenever he can, showing off his still-considerable ball skills.

And therein lies Maradona's genius. It is very clear that the man cares. He passionately wants to win and he passionately supports his players. His players want to play for him. And, as the French proved already in this tournament, that is a very important ingredient to a winning team.

Great players do not often make great coaches. They become frustrated when their players can't play as well, work as hard, or be as imaginative as they were. This may explain why Maradona was a failure at the club level. At the international level, however, he's surrounded by players that, while perhaps not as great as he once was, are very, very good.

He's also managed to deflect the glare of the media spotlight from his players (including the Best Player in the World, Lionel Messi) and their performances by making himself the story of his team, and probably the whole tournament. Only Maradona could trash-talk Pele and the head of UEFA (Michel Platini, who is also occasionally mentioned in the same company as an all-time great player) and receive not vitriol but chuckles in return.

Very few of us (and, I dare say, no one who would be inclined to read this blog) have the cache that Maradona has that would allow us to be hand picked, without any previous success, for the high profile position that received. But he has made the most of his opportunity and has in the process rewritten the latest chapter in his life. Most importantly, he has inspired his team to perform at great heights and, either because of or in spite of his tactical decisions, it has managed to be both successful and entertaining while doing so.

If you believe in yourself, believe in your team, and let the world know that you do, marvelous things can happen. And you may not even need the Hand of God to help.

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