Maradona is in complete control
JOHANNESBURG -- Granted, Diego Maradona's latest moment of brilliance might have been nothing more than an accident. Friday's World Cup coverage began with a viral video of Argentina's incorrigible manager running across a cold field with his players, kicking around a ball with childlike enthusiasm, all while he hauled on a giant cigar. Be damned his tender heart, his history of excess, his buffoon's burden. Here he is, blowing out smoke like a dragon, once again finding himself at the center of the world's undivided attention.
This time, this one time, he might not have planned on it. He might have thought nothing much beyond, I want to play soccer, and I want to have a smoke, and so he did, and a camera happened to capture it.
But over the past few weeks here in South Africa, while I've watched Maradona make shocking news conference pronouncements and celebrate each beautiful Argentine goal as though he had scored it himself, I've chosen to believe that most of what the old man does is calculated. I believe he knows exactly what he's doing, and he's known it from the start. I don't think he's an idiot savant or an accidental genius or a man who just keeps getting struck by lightning, as others might. I believe Diego Maradona is the most interesting man in the world.
His term as the head of his national team, the team he single-handedly guided to a World Cup win in 1986 -- OK, God helped -- had started badly after his controversial appointment in November 2008. He was seen as a tactical amateur, a man who called up nearly 100 confused players, a disorganized, impulsive force of nature who couldn't be trusted to manage his own colossal appetites, let alone a national institution. When Argentina suffered a 6-1 defeat to Bolivia during qualifying for this World Cup, it looked as though his tenure would resemble his disastrous post-playing life more than his brilliant on-field career.
But then, as they were always going to, the Argentines rallied around their patron saint and won their last two games to qualify, including a dramatic 1-0 victory over Uruguay in Montevideo. After that game, Maradona declared that he had been "consecrated" in his position, and he looked as though he truly believed that he had been suddenly blessed again by something divine. His baser self also came rushing to the surface: "Suck it, and keep on sucking it," he told the reporters who had dared doubt him.
It was one of the all-time great postgame tirades, and it was just the first of many. FIFA suspended him for it, a meaningless two-month vacation during which Argentina played exactly zero minutes of real soccer. He had been taught nothing, which is to say that he had learned everything. Now Maradona knew that, even without his feet on the field, he could help his country win. All he had to do was open his mouth, and he could will everything into its rightful place.
He began here by taking on Pele, one of soccer's most sacred figures, telling the prolific Brazilian that he should go "back to the museum." He derided UEFA president Michel Platini and, in the process, the entirety of France. He made light of his massive tax debt to the Italian government -- 37 million euros and counting -- which he had attempted to pay off by handing over two nice watches and a pair of earrings. His great black head appeared in the middle of a halftime bench fight during the round of 16 against Mexico. He was asked why he was so affectionate with his players, and he said, "Well, I still prefer women. I am dating Veronica, who is a blond and 31 years old. No, I have not gone limp-wristed."
Most recently, his outrageous campaign has reached new heights over Argentina's next hurdle, the dreaded Germans, who won their 2006 World Cup quarterfinal in a shootout. After German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger complained about Argentina's sometimes goonish play and referee-baiting, Maradona looked into a camera and said, "What's the matter Schweinsteiger? Are you nervoushhh?"
Maradona was immediately blasted for his apparent mocking of the German accent -- which this master of gamesmanship had no doubt meant to -- but he had, in fact, only adopted the famous catchphrase of Nestor Kirchner, the lisp-afflicted former Argentine president. Maradona had consciously upset his opponent, but he did it with plausible deniability waiting in his back pocket. If people didn't get the joke, that was their problem; that was only their cultural ignorance at work, not his. "Are you nervoushhh?" was a masterstroke. It was vintage Maradona, the man who could knock an opponent into pieces long before the opening whistle.
Now, he is what he was. He is great again. He stands on the sideline in his gray suit, feverishly working his rosary, barely able to restrain himself from running onto the field, and he is young once more. Everything that happened between then and now -- his monstrous coke habit, his alcoholism, his bulging waistline, his stomach stapling and romantic entanglements -- has not disappeared, but it's become just more material for him to mine. The way it made people sometimes forget about his playing career, his inescapable narcissism has protected Argentina's current players from having to suffer in their own spotlight.
Maradona has taken it all on himself -- partly because he likes the attention, flat-out thrives on the attention, but mostly because he knows it will keep the rest of his world safe. The same Argentines who had nearly stumbled out of qualifying have dominated here, winning game after game by playing attacking, vengeful soccer, by getting inside the heads of their rivals, by finding weaknesses and exploiting them, by relying on faith and love and superstition to get them past their own. They have become the embodiment of their manager, 11 men collectively assuming the personality of their D10S. This is Diego Maradona's team, and he has molded it in his own graven image. It has been an incredible journey for the rest of us to watch. It is 1,000 lifetimes rolled into one.
Smoke it, El Diego. And keep on smoking it.
Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.