Maradona has Argentina clicking
Maradona, the meticulous coach, is different than Maradona, the superstar player
He has been pulling all the right strings to get Argentina in prime position
Argentina has a difficult second-round match Sunday with dangerous Mexico
In the olden days, when he had a beard it was time to worry. Diego Maradona-watchers, finely tuned to subtle indicators, could always tell the unshaven syndrome was a sign of trouble.
It now seems this, along with other commonly-held assumptions, has changed. Far from giving him an unkempt air, the grey beard and matching suit lend Maradona a certain sophistication and laid back authority.
Leading his men and country with nine points into the second round, Maradona has unveiled a version of himself hitherto unseen by some. The meticulous planner and strategist.
In the first match against Nigeria, Argentina benefitted from a goal practiced over and over during training, and by all accounts designed by himself.
During the second match against South Korea dedicated spotters observed: "A cold day. Four subs -- two midfielders, one defender, one attacker -- start warming up with the whistle. This is atypical, hardly anyone sends subs to warm up before the second half because you rarely implement a substitution in the first half. Next thing you know, Samuel leaves injured. Burdisso comes on straight away, ready, because he had been sent to run. That level of planning is worthy of an obsessive like Bilardo, not a spontaneous creature like Maradona. And yet, it was Diego who did it."
And match number three, against Greece, when he could afford to rest crucial players, he fielded his 'B' team (albeit with three at the front named Messi, Agüero and Milito) to secure a two-goal lead courtesy of 'Michu' Demichelis and Martin Palermo. Palermo and Pavone, inspired substitutions, both made their World Cup debuts Tuesday.
This is a most natural habitat for Diego. "I know a little bit about what a World Cup is, and what it means to be fully immersed in [one]," he said at the press conference before the final group game. "I know that in a World Cup every squad is capable to whack the ball in at an angle and scatter everything you've worked on all over the floor." This observation came in tow with the more quoted "We are neither candidates nor favorites." And it is part of Argentinian folklore to believe in the khabala that states the nation never wins when it starts off as favorite.
But favorites they are fast becoming - Diego has not yet made a wrong step. He is, quite literally, the darling of the World Cup and he has the world's media in his pocket. "Very few people have charisma to that degree" his friend and personal physician once told me "Eva Peron had it, Bill Clinton has it, and Diego has it in bucketloads."
The players are clearly fond of him, and the smiles, jokes, pats on the backside and hugs between manager and team have become the delight of pundits round the globe. "We feel very comfortable in South Africa," he said and relishes the fact that for the first time in its history the national squad has reached the World Cup Finals with 23 totally fit players. He devoted the first ten days of their stay to group bonding and team-building, missing out on friendlies which cost fellow World Cup travelers injury. The group stage shows the exercise paid off. The team is gelling, there is a sense of fun, and the press has reverted back to the early days of Maradona's managerial campaign; unquestioning, reverent, many asking questions in shaky voices. The copy editors are probably wiping dribble from the filed texts.
The international press, too, has gotten a glimpse of his charm. The man is still widely regarded as the best footballer ever, and the combination of being back in the limelight and back in the squad is turning him into the best entertainer at the world's biggest show. He can joke with a generous grin at Luis Fabiano stating he scored with the 'hand of God' -- "nah, he did it with arm of God" while slipping a more accusatory "What is worrying is that the referee laughed. Because when I did it, I looked at the ref to see how he would react. But this one laughed, and so you think "If you're laughing it's because you saw it, and if you saw it why didn't you call it?" At that point, Diego is raising his eyebrows, fixing his gaze and pursing his lips. This means he's serious.
After the Greece game, the issue of the referees worked him up a tad more - gesticulating more like the Diego of old, slightly breathless as his indignation increased, he proclaimed "the famous Fair Play doesn't exist, viejo." His complaint, valid one might add, is that Messi is being marked too roughly, out of the game. "Show one guy the yellow, and the other defenders will be more cautious" he went on, visibly with a total lack of a sense of humor.
The good Diego won, though, and he soon was back to laughing as he shared his managerial technique with the world. "Enrique, Mancuso and Maradona deliberated over whether Palermo or Higuaín should come on," he said using the third person to refer to himself, something he sometimes does. "Enrique and Mancuso wanted 'Pipita' so I said 'yeah? bring on Martin then." He says he told Martin Palermo to '"go in and define this for me." Said and done, the 36-year-old striker had his first-ever taste of a World Cup and scored on the 89th minute.
With seven goals (four of them from set pieces devised by Maradona) in three matches, Argentina has secured its place in the second round -- it faces Mexico on Sunday.
What has been proven, if proof were needed, is that Maradona's love for football is unconditional. He is relishing every minute, clearly into this, with his batteries charged and plugged in, as we say in Argentina. "We haven't betrayed ourselves footballistically," Maradona concluded.
The maverick is still stressing how motivated he is to prove his critics wrong, though, and the demon within is clearly lurking when he so much as thinks about it. He would 'love' to see some of the journalists who questioned the squad's mid-qualifying campaign to apologize to the players. He is not the same Diego who flipped out back in October, but tellingly at the time he slurred "I'm either black or white but never gray."
It's a long road to the Final, and among the fears of those who feared is whether Diego can sustain his good mood for the whole stretch. Let's hope so, because when Diego's bad he's horrid; but when he's good -- like now -- he's very, very good.