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The Maradona Conundrum

My cousin C_____ is a cynic, a jokester, a sly dealer in double-entendres, the sort who never says anything seriously. Only twice in my life have I heard him express a sincere emotion: at his wedding reception (happiness, presumably), and once when describing Diego Armando Maradona’s farewell game. I’d decided not to watch it, but C_____ couldn’t resist, and the next day, as he told me what he’d seen, his voice broke. I thought he was joking at first. It was a charity match, a spectacle, and a slow, grotesquely overweight Maradona scored three or four goals on penalty kicks. René Higuita, one-time goalkeeper for the Colombian national team, played his role perfectly: Diego sauntered up to the ball, kicked it lethargically toward the goal, and Higuita stood frozen on his line, upright, not diving to one side or another. Afterward he walked toward Diego and the two old combatants embraced. C_____ was heartbroken to see his idol reduced to this. Diego’s going to die, my cousin said, tears welling up in his eyes, as if he’d never before considered the notion that Diego might be mortal.

El Diego had been my hero too, of course. I was nine years old in 1986, and had a life-size poster of him hanging in my room. I dreamed of becoming the Peruvian Diego, leading our country to glory, etc. etc. Nothing original—millions of nine year-olds across Latin America and the world shared this same fantasy. I begged for an Argentina jersey, and my parents came back from a trip with something, if not better, at least stranger: a record, a seven inch single of El Diego singing treacly pop songs with the horrible soft-rock duo Pimpinela. This was back in 1988. Even then, it was unlistenable. Still, this love affair lasted through the 1990 World Cup, and ended with heartbreak in 1994, for reasons we all remember.

And now, with Diego as coach of the Argentine national team, I feel very conflicted. He has arguably the best players in the world on his squad, certainly some of the most exciting; and it’s hard to conceive of a worse coach to lead such a talented group. His predecessor, Marcelo Bielsa, has proven his abilities by taking Chile to the tournament. Diego, with a much more talented team, barely qualified—but for a last minute goal by Martín Palermo (how old is that dude?) against Peru in the rain-soaked penultimate match, Argentina might be watching this tournament from home. His tactical acumen is zero; his misuse of the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, is almost criminal; and yet he made it. He could very well become the worst coach to ever win a World Cup. If he does, the canonization of Diego will be complete. The old dictum about the role of the coach has never been more apt: any success Argentina has in this tournament will be thanks to the skill of their players; while the responsibility for failure will lie squarely with the coach.

When the games begin, I’ll find it hard to root against Argentina—it’s habit, and comes easily when there are players as compelling as Messi, Carlos Tevez, and Diego Milito on the pitch—but a small part of me hopes that Diego will be punished for his terrible work as coach. That the myth will be broken. That Argentina, and the rest of Latin America (my cousin C_____ included), will finally be able to move on, and accept that yes, the man is mortal.