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"People talk about basketball players, how they run full speed but they're in control of the ball with their hands, but that's way easier," Henry continues. "Running with the ball at your feet at full speed and being able to see, [being] aware of what is happening around you, [while] people are trying to make you fall? Lio is always kind of falling, but he doesn't go down. I would love to have his first step, and his double dribbles, but it's him being small [and] quick: He touches the ball every step of his run. It's impossible to do what he does. I go one-two-three, push the ball, one-two-three, push the ball. If I want to touch it every time, I [have to] slow down. But he can go full speed: Tack-tack-tack-tack, tack-tack-tack-tack." Henry throws up his hands. "I wish I was small," he says.
The easy conclusion, of course, is that the country is mad. Yes, anyplace can seem bizarre to a stranger, but let's agree that Argentina's lunacy is more obvious than, say, Denmark's. Argentina is, after all, the nation with the most psychoanalysts per capita; the country whose still-feverish devotion to a long-dead First Lady resulted in a town, Ciudad Evita, built in the shape of her head; the land where citizens fearlessly consume beef for breakfast or with afternoon coffee and erupt in street protests for any reason at all. On an April afternoon, for example, picketers halted rush-hour traffic on the highway into Buenos Aires, expressing outrage over the damage caused by a recent hailstorm. "Protesting the hail," said a lifelong resident with a shrug. "Of course."
Still, it's another thing for a country to indulge its own lunacy where its most prized possession is concerned. When in October 2008 longtime Argentina Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona named Maradona the national team coach, he made a choice that few could imagine his counterparts in England or Brazil or Germany making. It smacked of desperation and arrogance. It was confounding, exhilarating and, for a constituency accustomed to political and economic tumult, wholly appropriate.
"Argentina is used to living from crisis to crisis to crisis, and life always goes on," says Ezequiel Fernández Moores, a columnist for the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación. "Maybe it's crazy to put [Maradona] in that position, but maybe not. Sometimes it seems we love the crisis. We can't live without the crisis. Maradona is an icon of that."
Consider: One of international soccer's most storied programs, a two-time World Cup champion, was placed in the hands of a man with no international coaching experience and a paltry three wins in 23 matches during his sole stint as a club coach, with Argentina's Deportivo Mandiyú in 1994 and Racing Club in '95. Why? Speculation ranged widely: Maradona was owed the position for all he accomplished as a player; his popularity made it impossible for the AFA not to give him at least one shot; Grondona had feuded with or rejected other candidates and, when Alfio Basile resigned, Maradona was the only one Grondona could stomach.
Grondona declined to talk to SI, but in a rare newspaper interview last August he mentioned Maradona's deep knowledge of international soccer and of the Argentine talent base. "Though a standout player himself, he's never been selfish," Grondona said. "He has a natural authority over those players who saw him on the pitch or read about him. Moreover, he has a freedom of spirit that is really strange for any other coach."
Strange indeed. Maradona's curious stewardship has the nation peeking through its fingers. Grondona appointed Carlos Bilardo, who directed Maradona and Argentina to the country's last world championship, in 1986, as the team's general manager, but there were times when Bilardo and his coach barely spoke—and the 49-year-old Maradona has since emerged firmly in charge. He won an early battle to choose his own assistants, though his former teammates Alejandro Mancuso and Héctor Enrique hardly make up for their boss's inexperience on the international stage. (Enrique's standing stems mostly from passing Maradona the ball for his historic second goal against England in '86.) The sole evidence that Maradona's soccer eye remains sharp is his stubborn championing, amid much criticism, of surprisingly steady 23-year-old goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Argentina will open the World Cup, then, as the tournament's most perplexing team. Grouped with Nigeria, South Korea and Greece, the Albiceleste should make it to the knockout stage, but Maradona has yet to show he knows how to maximize Messi's performance. The coach has alienated midfielder Juan Román Riquelme, the often self-involved Boca Juniors midfielder whose synergy with Messi led the Albiceleste to the 2007 Copa América final and the '08 Olympic gold medal. According to Hernán Castillo, the onetime soccer writer for the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín, who now covers the national team for Radio La Red, the players' respect for their coach dwindled when he played them out of position and showed a lack of knowledge about their opponents. Trailing 2--0 at the half of a humiliating loss to Brazil last September in Messi's hometown of Rosario, Maradona walked through the locker room saying, "Let's go! For the country! We can do it!" After he left, one of the team's veteran midfielders, knowing somebody had to make a tactical move, told Messi to play farther back and conferred with a few other teammates. Argentina attacked more effectively in the second half but still went down 3--1, for its first home defeat in a Cup qualifier in 16 years.
Whether Maradona lacks the imagination to make a wholesale strategic shift on Messi's behalf isn't clear. "If I had to change for his good, I'd change," Maradona said in March. "But I think that with ... the players we have, all he needs to do is explode, and surely he will do that at the World Cup." The coach declined to elaborate for SI; a request for an interview through the AFA was answered by Fernando Molina, Maradona's personal flack and the boyfriend of his daughter Dalma, with an e-mailed demand for "100,000 euros limpios"—$126,000, tax-free. (SI does not pay for interviews.)
"They have many wonderful players, but they're not a team; I don't know what's going on right now," says Francisco (Pancho) Ferraro, coach of the Argentine under-20 team that Messi led to a world title in 2005. "We just have to hope God inspires Maradona ... and we have Messi. So we have reason to believe."