If Barça’s boy wonder does win fooball’s most coveted trophy, it won’t be with Diego Maradona at the helm. Herein lies a sorry tale of jealousy, intrigue and overblown egos…
The world stage is knee-deep in fallen footballing idols; players like Eric Cantona, David Ginola and Matt Le Tissier who failed to translate their club-level genius in front of an international audience. That the mercurial Lionel Messi could ever add to their number beggars belief. This, after all, is the nimble genius who recently annihilated Arsenal in the Champions League quarter finals, putting four goals past them at his beloved Nou Camp stadium. Dressed in the familiar Barça red and blue, there seems to be no limit to the 22-year-old’s potential.
A little over a year ago, however, this same young man walked from the field, head hung low, struggling to understand how the Argentine national team, with whom he’d just endured a torrid 90 minutes, had lost to Bolivia. The scoreline read 6-1.
How was that possible from a line-up containing the most gifted footballer of his generation? The answer, bizarrely enough, lay with a man, similarly gifted, who ruled the world of football several generations earlier.
You can question Diego Maradona’s abilities as a manager (and I will, in due course), but there’s no doubting his ability to live the life peculiar. At the time of writing, he was recovering from facial surgery (his own dog bit him on the lip), the latest in a long line of unusual occurrences. This summer, dog willing, he’ll head to South Africa as the head coach of the Argentine national squad. So, you might well ask; is this one-time legend, sometime cheat, many times drug addict, all-the-time conceited egotist a proven manager of men?
No, is the simple answer. He’s barely capable of running his own life, let alone anyone else’s. His managerial experience is virtually non-existent. Along with his similarly frenetic buddy, Carlos Fren, he previously coached two clubs in as many years, with miserable consequences on both occasions. He then spent a number of years in druggy hell before a cocaine-induced heart attack forced him to clean up his act in 2004. That he’s allowed anywhere near the national team is, frankly, astounding.
Of course, it’s Maradona’s legacy as a player that swept him into the role. He is unashamedly adored by his countryfolk, often seen as a kind of prodigal son, worthy of the position despite his obvious managerial inadequacies. While most managers would shed limbs to be able to build a team around a player like Messi, Maradona fails time and again to find the right line-up to support him (over 100 players have received international caps during the first 18 months of his reign) and seems clueless as to which position the youngster should retain when he plays. At Barcelona, where Messi gets an astonishing 70 per cent of his shots on target, his role is defined and consistent. This really isn’t rocket science, Diego.
That Messi’s father has had to defend his son on national TV says a lot about which side has the nation’s support. At home, the boy they call ‘The Catalan’ is viewed with little more than suspicion. Never having played professionally in Argentina, he earned his nickname by joining Barcelona at the tender age of 13, thus robbing him of the chance to live out the rags to riches tale his predecessor revels in. Amazingly, it seems that he is judged by his would-be fans not on his footballing prowess, but on his career choices. Were he given the support he needs, there’s no telling what he might achieve.
Needless to say, his coach has little support to offer. He’s too busy polishing his legend. Seemingly unable to proffer anything other than boastful challenges, Maradona praised Messi’s destruction of Arsenal thusly:
‘He’s playing like Jesus at the moment,’ adding that, ‘I told him… to do as much as he can with his career and then, at the end, we will see who’s the best.’ Elsewhere, Argentina’s fans have urged the young midfielder to tease his nondescript mullet into a flamboyant, Maradona-esque perm, claiming it’ll bring extra luck. Talk about piling on the pressure.
Luckily for Messi, a sense of calm seems to be the one thing he has going for him, other than his charmed facility with a football. He recently explained that, ‘I don’t compare myself to Maradona. I want to make my own history and do something important with my own career,’ to which a haughty Maradona responded, ‘If someone must surpass me, let it be an Argentine.’ The sad truth is, with Maradona as his coach, Messi will never have the last word. Unless, of course, he lets his football do the talking.
Originally blogged on Time Out Abu Dhabi