|Report Index--> 2008-09--> All for 20081119|
|n/a||n/a||Guardian ------ Report||n/a||n/a|
Glasgow hails the hand of God
Richard Williams in Glasgow
Diego Maradona, recently appointed head coach of Argentina, talks with the media ahead of the Scotland v Argentina friendly at Hampden Park. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
At this stage in the proceedings, the most likely place to find Diego Armando Maradona ought to be in the pages of his compatriot Jorge Luis Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings, alongside the stiff-bristled, mud-wallowing Catoblepas, the 100-mile-long Earthquake fish, the weeping, wart-covered Squonk and the Peryton of the ancient world - half-deer, half-bird, but casting the shadow of a man.
The people of Glasgow have been staring at the former golden boy of world football this week as though he were a mythical beast capable of changing shape at will.
And yet, as he wandered the corridors of his hotel Maradona, now 48, looked far more like the sturdy, well-proportioned figure who so hurtfully removed England from the 1986 World Cup than either the sliver of a man who fought his way back into the Argentina team for the 1994 World Cup, only to fail a drugs test when traces of diuretics were found in his urine, or the terrifyingly obese creature who, 10 years later, suffered a heart attack while watching a match in Buenos Aires and was rushed to hospital, a tearful crowd clutching candles outside as nurses hooked him up to a life support system.
Apart from Buenos Aires, his home city, and Naples, where he performed miracles in the 1980s while falling under the influence of the Camorra and cocaine, there is possibly no city on earth that would give him a warmer welcome than Glasgow, where his hand-ball goal in Mexico 22 years ago was fervently acclaimed and where he will make his debut as Argentina's head coach in tonight's friendly match against Scotland.
Asked at last night's press conference about the comments of Terry Butcher, the assistant manager of the Scotland squad, who was a member of the England team that day in 1986 and made it clear this week that he will refuse to shake the Hand of God at Hampden Park, Maradona prefaced his reply with a pantomime "Oooh!" worthy of Kenneth Williams.
"I don't understand why he's taking this attitude," he said. "Let him get on with his life and I'll get on with mine." Pressed further by a television reporter on that most notorious of goals, he responded with a reference to an equally controversial incident from 20 years earlier. "I can reply to the lady that when England won the World Cup, it was with a goal that everybody could see never crossed the line," he said.
As he held his hands two feet apart to indicate the distance between the bounce of Geoff Hurst's shot and the goal line at Wembley in 1966, the Scottish and Argentinian media contingents convulsed with laughter.
More than 400 journalists from around the world have descended on Glasgow this week to watch the legend lead a 21-strong squad including the 20-year-old goalscoring prodigy Sergio Agüero, whose girlfriend, Maradona's younger daughter Giannina, is due to give birth to Diego's first grandchild - a boy - in February. So while the next New Maradona may be his son-in-law, the one after that could be his grandson.
Even though Maradona captained Argentina to victory in 1986, his appointment represents a considerable risk. His coaching record amounts to just 23 matches, first with Mandiyu of Corrientes, a small club, in 1994, and then with Racing Club of Buenos Aires, a very large one, the following year. Only three of those matches ended in victories. An idol in his homeland he may be, and the object of a cult that has reached its bizarre apogee in the founding of a Church of Maradona (whose Scottish representatives have been keeping a vigil outside the hotel), but a recent poll found almost three-quarters of the Argentinian public believe the appointment to be a mistake.
His demise, however, has been inaccurately foretold on several occasions. As he lay in hospital back in April 2004, virtually every sportswriter in the world spent time composing his obituary. But, detoxed in Cuba and with his stomach stapled in Colombia, he defied predictions and returned to life. And now he is back on the biggest stage, as the coach responsible for reviving Argentina's faltering qualification campaign for the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.
He strode through the throng gathered at the airport to greet his return to Scotland - where, as an 18-year-old in 1979, he scored his first international goal - with that familiar barrel-chested strut and the imperious 1,000-yard stare of a man who has spent all his life under the gaze of others and still has horizons to conquer.
The smiles were wider throughout his first training session, which began 15 minutes earlier than the scheduled 6.30pm start. Yesterday's press conference, too, started and finished on time. A man notorious for his indifference to punctuality appears intent on demonstrating his professionalism.
Wearing a blue team tracksuit, black gloves and a beanie hat, Maradona stood aside at Celtic Park as the squad went through a brief sequence of warm-up sprints and stretches while their fitness instructor clapped out a rhythm that sounded more tarantella than tango. Before long, however, a game of football was in progress. The new head coach limped noticeably as he walked among his players in the guise of referee, restricting himself to a blast on his whistle when a goal was scored.
The session ended after an hour with the players retreating to the changing rooms, leaving the unusual sight of Maradona, his assistants and a dozen ball boys recruited from Celtic's juniors intently searching the turf for a gold St Christopher medallion which had detached itself from the neck-chain of one of the players. The 13-year-old who found it was embraced and hoisted into the air by the head coach and presented with his hat and gloves. Instinctive and impulsive, it was a gesture typical of the dark-eyed, curly-haired, divinely talented kid who left a Buenos Aires slum to capture hearts around the world.
Someone asked yesterday if he would find it difficult to restrain his famously turbulent emotions while occupying his new vantage point on the touchline?
"It depends on how the team are playing," he said. "If they're making me feeling secure, I'll be fine. If things are going badly, I'm going to behave as I've always done."
All being well, Maradona will have become a grandfather by the time Argentina play their next World Cup qualifying matches in March. If he is still wearing the coach's tracksuit when they meet Venezuela at home and climb to 12,000ft above sea level to face Bolivia in La Paz, then Julio Grondona, the 77-year-old president of the Argentinian football association - who likened this evening's game to "a wedding night - you really hope that it will be wonderful but you never actually know how it's going to turn out" - may be giving himself a cautious pat on the back.
Taken from the Guardian/Observer