A new era begins for Argentina
So, Diego Maradona is unveiled today as Argentina manager. I'm not going to pretend that my own reaction, when I heard the news, was calm or rational, or that I felt it made sense in any way. It still doesn't, really. But after a day to reflect, and consider how the technical team are likely to function, it makes a little more sense.
In Argentina, of course, everyone's rather excited. The 30th of October is Maradona's 48th birthday, and the fact that the AFA are set to make the appointment official today of all days - without anyone criticising the sentimentality behind such timing - only shows that we're talking about a nation so enamoured with Diego that they're prepared to present him with the number one managerial role in the country as a birthday present.
Alright, that's a bit flippant. It's not quite as slapdash an approach to appointing a manager as it seems. Whilst AFA president Julio Grondona has ignored two good candidates in Miguel Angel Russo and Sergio Batista (the third, Carlos Bianchi, has refused in the past to manage his country whilst Grondona is head of the AFA), he's making sure Maradona will be merely the most visible point of reference for the players in a three-man coaching body for the national side.
Former Independiente boss Pedro Troglio, a fellow international in the late 1980s, will be assistant manager, whilst Fernando Signorini will be the team's physical trainer. That's an interesting choice. Signorini held the same position at the 1994 World Cup, when a certain playmaker's international career was effectively ended after he failed a doping test. That mistake, of course, won't be made again, but it's a statement of Maradona's trust in those around him.
The address book comes out for the other positions too: Sergio Goycochea, goalkeeper for the 1990 and '94 World Cups, will be goalkeeping coach; José Luis Brown, the centre back who scored his only international goal in the '86 final, will be in charge of the defence and Sergio Batista - mentioned on these pages when I briefly summarised the early favourites to replace Alfio Basile a couple of weeks ago - will remain as youth team boss but will be consulted frequently by Maradona. Gabriel Batistuta, the selección's all-time leading goalscorer, is also due a phone call if news agency Diarios y Noticias are to be believed.
The players will be training with some of their boyhood heroes. And the biggest of the lot will be the one picking the side and giving the team talks. How much motivation should that give them?
For that reason, although realising it's hardly the sensible appointment, Argentines are hopeful. That's in no small part due to the affection they hold for a man they refer to as 'God' with rather less irony than is probably healthy.
Flaws have been noted though - Olé, the country's only sports daily, asked in their front page tagline 'why didn't Grondona want Bianchi?', whilst the website of enormously respected sports monthly El Gráfico carries a feature on the great man's terrible spells in charge of Deportivo Mandiyú (since reformed as Téxtil Mandiyú) and Racing over a decade ago - his only previous managerial experience.
It's not the first time a committee have taken charge of the Argentine national team. In 1959 they won the Copa América (then the Campeonato Sudamericano) with a three-man team on the bench, whilst in 1974 they went to the World Cup in West Germany with another three-man committee and were eliminated in the second round, undermined by infighting. The current set-up could swing the debate.
There has, however, been an elephant in the room for those trying to be optimistic. Luis Segura, the former Co-ordinator of National Teams (the chap who told the press, hours before Basile's resignation, 'Grondona doesn't sack managers... some have resigned'), has been replaced by Carlos Bilardo. This appointment is far more likely to divide Argentine opinion over the new setup than Maradona ever would.
Bilardo managed Argentina in the 1986 and '90 World Cups. He built a team around Maradona which won in Mexico '86, but is remembered just as much for the absolute dross his side served up en route to a second final four years later. He's synonymous with the philosophy of winning at all costs.
One anecdote from his time at Sevilla - possibly apocryphal, but still believable - illustrates this. As an opposing player lay injured on the sideline, Sevilla's physio ran to help, and was pursued by Bilardo, who harangued him; 'What are you doing?! Don't help him! He is the enemy! The enemy must be stamped upon! Stamp on him!'
If Bilardo is to have no input on the pitch, why employ him over Segura, a club president (funnily enough with Maradona's first club Argentinos Juniors)? All the same, Maradona is known to favour an open attacking game, and surrounded by a decent technical team, might surprise people. Perhaps.
There will be changes in personnel on the pitch - Vélez Sársfield's Emiliano Papa is expected to be given a chance at left back, for example - but by and large Sergio Agüero (soon to become the father of Maradona's first grandchild) and Juan Román Riquelme will be key to the attack. Lionel Messi might be starting less regularly, if the journos' take on the new boss's recent comments are worth anything.
Javier Mascherano's international career has never looked safer; before the latest round of World Cup qualifiers Maradona described Argentina as 'Mascherano plus ten'. With the players at his disposal, qualification for South Africa should be a given.
Once there, El Diez can start trying to prove people wrong. And if the draw pits them against Brazil, Italy or England - countries against whom he played matches with varying degrees of controversy a couple of decades ago - things could get very tasty, in the press conferences as much as the matches.
Success or failure, it'll be spectacular. A new era starts here. Happy birthday, Diego.