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Hand of God or Brain of Idiot?

May 26, 2010
By David Hirshey and Roger Bennett
Special to ESPN.com


Editor's note: If you can't make it to the pub for some spirited World Cup debate, you've come to the right place. Throughout the tournament, David Hirshey and Roger Bennett, authors of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event," will be kicking the ball around, so to speak, as they deliberate -- OK, argue -- over key talking points throughout the tournament. In this installment, they ask whether this year's World Cup will burnish or tarnish Diego Maradona's legacy.

Roger Bennett: Whatever side of the issue you come out at, Argentina coach Diego Maradona is going to be one of the dominant storylines at this World Cup. In 1986, he gave one of the singular virtuoso performances in the tournament's history. Eight years later, he celebrated an opening goal in such hopped-up style that providing a urine sample for a drug test was barely necessary. Maradona has been both a World Cup hero and a disgrace. How will the world view him after this tournament?

David Hirshey: Maradona's status as one of the two greatest players of all time is utterly secure, but Maradona the man is once again an accident that has happened. Take the other day, when the car he was driving knocked down a cameraman and rolled over the lower part of his leg. Did Maradona apologize and offer to pay his victim's hospital bills? Not precisely, unless the following is his standard mea culpa. "What an a--hole you are," he shouted at the fallen cameraman. "How can you put your leg there where it can get run over, man?"

No, the real question is: "How could Argentina put a man who once practiced his short-range rifle skills in the lobby of his hotel in charge of the national team, no matter how many wondrous goals he scored for his country?" Or to put it another way: "Will Maradona be able to rise above his egotistical dread that a glittering World Cup for Lionel Messi could cost him his place atop Argentina's soccer pantheon?"

Diego Maradona
Bob Thomas/Getty ImagesThe world's most infamous volleyball player.

On the one hand (no, not that damned hand), Maradona knows a rampant Messi in South Africa could mean another title for Argentina. On the other, he can't bear the thought that his beloved country could ever worship another player more than him. Which is why I fully expect Argentina's World Cup hopes to go hurtling into a retaining wall in the later rounds, further cementing Maradona's legacy as a transcendently talented, out-of-control ass clown.

RB: Argentina's qualifying campaign was undoubtedly shambolic, and until a 1-0 victory over Germany in March, Maradona's management style was surreal, emphasizing passion over strategy and tactics and cycling through more than 100 players in search of consistency. But don't reduce Argentina to a one-man Messi band. Becoming obsessed with the hype surrounding the "Will Messi emerge from the shadow of Maradona?" debate disrespects the likes of Sergio Aguero, Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano.

DH: I think you unwittingly (your specialty) just nailed the problem. With the exception of Mascherano, each of the other four names that you mentioned is a forward. Argentina is going to try to win its games 11-10. Maradona left Fernando Gago off his team, for crying out loud. He just cannot help but be anything other than a preening loon whose penchant for self-immolation will have an entire nation paralytic with despair by early July.

RB: Diego's announcement that he plans to field a back four consisting entirely of central defenders was certainly an eyebrow raiser. But any defense with smothering Walter Samuel plugging the middle is never going to leak goals.

Here is what gives me hope: If the past three World Cups are anything to go by, adversity, scandal, coaching chaos and chronic pre-tournament underperformance are the true breakfast of champions. Zinedine Zidane's iconic multicultural 1998 "Rainbow Warrior" French team lacked self-confidence and the ability to score in the year before the tournament. Many called for coach Aime Jacquet to be jettisoned. The Brazilians labored to qualify for the tournament in 2002, losing a third of their games and casting aside two coaches along the way. Many dismissed the squad as the weakest ever to represent the nation, but once the tournament began, Ronaldo led the team to a redemptive victory few had predicted. And even you can't have forgotten that in 2006 the victorious Italians arrived in the shadow of a match-fixing scandal that had engulfed their domestic game and tarnished the reputations of many of the stars on the national team. Such was their disgrace that many in the Italian media initially prayed for defeat. The Milanese newspaper La Padania, ahead of the Azzuri's opening game, wrote: "I hope they go out quickly. They are arrogant, shameful, and above all, without balls." These teams did not win despite the distractions but because of them. And so it will go for Argentina in 2010.

Diego Maradona
AP Photo/Rodrigo Nespolo, La NacionMaradona celebrates a World Cup qualifying victory over Peru. He promises to run naked through Buenos Aires if Argentina wins the Cup.

DH: Oh dear. In your desperation to defend Maradona, you've been reduced to citing a 12-year track record of other teams valiantly rising to the occasion through common cause? But you conveniently leave out a few salient details. The French team of 1998 had not lost on home soil in forever. The 2002 World Cup was infamous for its dour and dire play, and the Italians of 2006 had a master coach at the helm in Marcello Lippi.

Your argument for Argentina should rest on the player the Spanish press calls "the Lord's anointed one," but even you realize that Messi won't be able to overcome Maradona's comedy stylings. Why? Because that spavined megalomaniac is going to listen to the demons that careen around in his head, channel his inner Sybil, and throw out formations and lineups that make sense only in his twisted cerebellum. The head is rotten. The body will fall. And Argentina will be left to mourn what could have been.

RB: David, those who can't learn from history are doomed to … resort to Googling a thesaurus to aid some vaguely creative name-calling, apparently. When Maradona announced his squad, he made it explicitly clear the lengths he has gone to build the team around Messi, even consulting Barca coach Pep Guardiola on how to maximize the impact of the Atomic Flea.

Maradona's news-conference comments reinforced the commitment he has to the World Player of the Year: "I want him playing all over the pitch because he has that tendency to play freely, to be the free man."

All of this reminds me of one thing and one thing only: Argentina's 1986 World Cup campaign began in similarly chaotic circumstances, and we know how that one ended -- and that victory in Mexico offers a precedent. Ahead of that tournament, the team's performance also was listless. The coach, Carlos Bilardo, feared for his job as he was publicly pilloried by fans, media and even the president. Maradona was then his captain and later wrote in his autobiography about the pressure the team experienced, admitting that the "Argentinean people watched [the opening game] with their eyes half-closed." There could be no finer motivation to summon the "us against the world" spirit necessary to claim the World Cup.

After delivering the greatest tournament-long performance the competition has ever seen, Maradona held the trophy aloft and harangued those who had doubted his team by leading a rendition of a crude terrace chant: "Argentina will be the champion, Argentina will be the champion -- we dedicate the victory to you all, even the [expletive] whore who gave birth to you." Don't be surprised if a similar potty-mouthed celebration is aimed your way in 2010.

DH: We finally have found our common ground. This World Cup will end with Marapoleon spewing venom and invective. But unlike the world champions of 1986, this time not even the Hand of God can rescue the Brain of Idiot.

You can reach Roger Bennett at sirfabiocapello@yahoo.com.