Alex Massie

Diego Maradona Lives to Fight Another Day

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Argentina's coach Diego Maradona celebrates his team's goal against Uruguay during their World Cup qualifier in Montevideo. Argentina won 1-0 and qualified in fourth position for the World Cup. Photo: Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images.

Well, they did it. In the end Argentina didn't need to win in Montevideo yesterday since Chile's victory against Ecuador ensured that, whatever happened by the River Plate, Argentina would still have a chance of qualifying for the World Cup next summer. Happily the Selección will be in South Africa.

Maradon'a reign as Argentina's manager has, of course, done more than just flirt with Calamity; it proposed to her and for some time Calamity seemed inclined to accept Maradona's advances. Happily the players responded with a performance of, by recent standards, rare coherence in Montevideo last night. A World Cup without Argentina isn't quite unthinkable but it would be a reduced tournament nonetheless.

Simon Kuper had a good piece in the FT at the weekend arguing that it's silly to blame Maradona for Argentina's recent run of terrible performances because Diego wasn't really hired to win matches, rather his job was to ensure that the team was the nation made flesh. In Kuper's view, one of the great divides in modern football is between those who accept the strictures of the professional, international game and those dinosaurs and romantics who cling to outdated notions that a given team should play in a given way that honours the traditional national style of play.

There's much to be said for Kuper's argument. But it's also the case that the greatest thing about a World Cup is, or should be, the contrast in playing styles. I'm in the minority who likes the way Italy plays football, but I don't like seeing Brazil play football the Italian way, just as I don't really want to see Germany playing in the grand old Dutch style.

In the case of Argentina, however, I think one can understand why there's been a call for a return to the traditional style. Kuper quotes Jorge Valdano, himself no mean player, saying "Argentina is the only undeveloping country on earth" and then explains the national way: Argentines wanted the Argentine team to play Argentine football: an attacking game featuring the undersized pibes, or boys, who epitomise the national style. The pibes would play with ganas, desire, and not be mere professionals. They would love Argentina.

That this flew in the face of accepted footballing wisdom wasn't beside the point, it was the point. Consider Argentina's position, relative to its neighbours: on the other side of the Andes there's successful Chile, to the north there's resurgent Brazil fast becoming amajor player on the playing fields of international politics as well as football. And then there's Argentina: still suffering from the consequences of economic collapse, still a country that feels half-built.

Argentines remains crippled by insecurity, casting their eyes enviously north to the riches of North America and back across the Atlantic to the old world. No wonder there are said to be more psychiatrists per head of population in Buenos Aires than just about anywhere on earth (plastic surgeons too, incidentally).

As an old joke puts it, an Argentinean commits suicide by jumping off his ego. Yet there's also a sadness, a melancholy about Argentina. In part this stems from its squandered natural wealth (in 1900 it was a richer country than Canada) and the sense that if only history could offer a mulligan Argentina might have a chance of making a better fist of matters.

Argentina's economic woes have, therefore, been chastening. A country with first world aspirations was reduced to an economic basket case. Aspirations have clashed with reality. Duelling senses of superiority and inferiority do not make for a happy nation.

What does this have to do with football? Well it explains why Maradona is such a hero - much more of one than an English or French player blessed with equivalent gifts would have been. It's about more than his ability, it's about the way Maradona played. He is the swaggering gaucho, the tango singer, the raffish outsider determined to play by his own rules in defiance of stultifying authority.

While others might see Maradona as a study in tawdriness - the stomach-stapling, the drugs, hanging out with Hugo Chavez - he embodies a certain sort of Argentina and will remain such forever.

More, I think, than any comparable modern figure, Maradona embodies some of the spirit of Martin Fierro, the eponymous gaucho hero of Argentina's national epic. Fierro, a deserter and outlaw, is viewed with what Borges termed "indulgence or admiration" for seeking out a duel of honor and killing his victim. This, to Argentine eyes, I believe makes Maradona a much more sympathetic and interesting figure than if he were a comparatively wholesome, unblemished superstar such as Pele. (This also helps explain a certain, shall we say, relaxed attitude towards cheating.)

In a piece for the Guardian during the last World Cup, Valdano recalled Argentina's game against England in the 1986 World Cup (sorry to bring that up again): On that day, "there was one crazy man capable of anything. A crazy Argentinian, to boot. It is important to consider the nature of that person because, from that day on, Maradona and Argentina became synonymous. We are talking about a country with a clearly extravagant relationship with football, a country which made a deity of a footballer with a decidedly extravagant relationship with football."

Indeed. And it's precisely because Argentina has suffered so much in recent years that a) its football team is a standard bearer not merely for Argentina as it is but for what it could be and, from that, b) it becomes more, not less, vital that the national team be seen to embody the virtues (and vices) of Argentina's sense of itself. Consequently, who better than Maradona, the national icon (for once the word is approproate) to lead it, even if asking him to do so actually increases the risk of failure and humiliation?

Incidentally, I also highly recommend this two-part Tim Pears article on Argentinian football. It too dates form 2006 but it's well worth your time.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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