Maradona's touch of madness will be missed

JAMES LAWTON for QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:28 PM ET

CAPE TOWN -- So Diego Maradona doesn't win his second World Cup and, yes, it was probably excessively romantic of some of us to believe he might.

But what would life, and football, be without a touch of the wild and faith in extraordinary human spirit -- and what would this 19th World Cup have been minus the presence of someone who 24 years ago in Mexico City came closer than anyone before or since to making the great prize the reward for one man's individual brilliance and will?

It would have lacked one central drama filled with improbable hope but also irresistible fascination.

That was what Maradona provided right up to the moment of the defeat -- no, let's put it how it was, the evisceration of his spirit -- he left here yesterday describing as a "kick in the face."

In the end, he was out-coached by the German football man Joachim Loew, a superbly assured technician who also knows how to mould and motivate young players in a way that may that just have transferred the balance of football power, but there was not -- for the time being, anyway -- any of the personality disintegration which the heaviest critics of his appointment predicted for the moment when things started to go wrong.

It means that if we push away the tumultuous, near fatal anarchy of the life that now separates them, there are two images of Diego Maradona.

One is of the strutting, fighting cock hero of the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in 1986. The other is of the man on the touchline here who seemed to gather a fair share of the sadness of the world as he watched the new German superstar warrior Bastian Schweinsteiger pound contemptuously at all of his hopes.

Inevitably, you have to believe, he will go, and his entry in the list of men who have tried to convert the natural-born ability of Argentine footballers into hard results, will languish far behind those of Cesar Menotti, the chain-smoking sear who delivered the World Cup in 1978, and Carlos Bilardo, the practical football man who benefited so hugely from Maradona's virtuosity and drive eight years later.

Menotti and Bilardo had reason to believe they would make their greatest mark as coaches.

For Maradona, the possibility was a gift that might have been beamed down from heaven, a strange convulsion in the history of his nation's football that relied, as much as anything, on some quasi-religious belief that he might re-kindle a quality in himself; one that could turn upside down all the weight of a modern game that claims to have moved so beyond the one he dominated so profoundly for a few weeks of an unforgettable Mexican summer.

Bilardo, who has stayed close to Maradona through all his turmoils, an acknowledgement of his personal debt, and was here as Argentina's general manager, was confident that something from the past would indeed be stirred here over the last few days. He said, "Maradona knows what winning the World Cup means, how it changes your life, and I believe the force of this is having its effect on the players. When we won in 1986, Maradona was the best player. Now it is Lionel Messi. If he plays well, we are walking champions."

Unfortunately Messi could only play passably well as he fell further and further back against the pressure of the Germans and Argentina were dead men standing almost from the moment Thomas Muller made his early strike. When he did that, he confirmed the belief of Loew that for all their attacking menace his opponents were a shell of a team lacking anything like adequate defence.

When Maradona was asked what he would say to the people of Argentina, his face was contorted with new grief. "Shall I say that all over again?" he replied. "I'm totally disappointed, like everyone in Argentina. I'll go back to my country and coming back after losing is difficult for anyone wearing Argentine colours. But we will sit down and figure out what happened. They scored the goals. We didn't. That's what made the difference. We knew they were dangerous on set-pieces. The first set-piece they had they were ahead. We gave Germany lots of good opportunities and they took them. This happens in football."

It was not, maybe, a football treatise of the deepest insight but it was as though Maradona had slipped beyond the detail of the disaster that had unfolded so painfully, which had left him for much of the time staring into the middle distance, his eyes mirrors of pain.

He had embraced each of his players, including Messi, who wept uncontrollably in the dressing room, and when he was asked for a word or two from his heart he said, "I lived through this in 1982 as a player, but I was a boy (one who had been dismissed against Brazil after calling the referee 'hijo de put' - son of a prostitute') and I didn't really understand the importance of things. Today, I will be 50 in October. I'm mature but this is the toughest moment of my life. Having so many people, players, professionals .... yes, this in the kick in the face. I have no energy for anything."

He seemed in a trance, now, but the questions kept coming in and some of his answers carried more coherent than others.

Why had a player of Messi's ability not taken hold of the tournament as he had once done, why had the lights around so many marquee players been so subdued? He said, "I don't know, it could be the way we played in my time. It's a different kind of game right now and I don't really have an explanation. Maybe we were selfish. These days, it is more about the collective. Players want to do more with their teammates. It was about star players being selfish."

He made one last defence of Messi, saying, "I thanked him in the dressing room for the great job he had done. I didn't speak about the future because this is not the time to do that. I believe the best one can do right now with them is to thank them for all these days we've spent together and remind them they've behaved like true professionals. We're just sad."

There he went with his pain and his lost glory to the counterpoint of the day when he ruled the world, and where did he leave us in the final strides of this World Cup which has left Spain, an often less-than-convincing Spain, most concerned about the strength of fellow Europeans Germany and Holland?

The inclination is to await developments after the unexpected smashing of Brazil by Holland the stunning rise of young Germany, but we cannot do that because if football breaks the dream of a Maradona one day, it re-invests quickly enough in another.

Here, the suspicion is that it well be a case of saying, Adios, Diego, and Hola, Andres.

Andres Iniesta, this is. Germany has created superb momentum to take into Wednesday's semifinal against Spain and the Brazilians, possibly not for entirely self-serving reasons, believe that their Dutch conquerors have in Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben players not only good enough to dismiss Uruguay here Tuesday night but also carry everything.

One thing is certain. The departure of Brazil and Argentina has hardly left a competitive vacuum. Some believe Germany has made an unanswerable case, and who could question the force inflicted by Schweinsteiger and his teammates on England and Argentina in their last two games?

However, Spain came here as favourites and if there is one compelling reason beyond the predatory touch of David Villa to believe they have retrieved such status, it is surely in the revived creativity of Iniesta. Neither England nor Argentina managed more than an occasional spasm of midfield coherence. Spain are awash with it, and no-one channels it more acutely than the little man from La Mancha.

The move which led to Villa's decisive goal against an unexpectedly defiant Paraguay provided the essence of his game. It was a perfectly conceived run and pass and the Paraguayans were destroyed.

Destiny called at that moment, just as a few hours earlier it had sent Maradona on his way. Iniesta's response gave a little further evidence that when it is over, he will have proved himself another little man who was irresistible in his desire to place his hand on the World Cup.

James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.


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