I’m in mourning now that Argentina and Brazil have gone home. Not because of the players—I think the four best teams are in the semis (I write this before the first semi-final)—but because that’s the last we see of the two most colourful coaches at this tournament, Diego Armando Maradona and Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri, better known as Dunga.
Over the past four weeks, they have provided the best copy, courtesy the most interesting press conferences, with Dunga’s Pete Townshend-like windmill actions on the sidelines during matches a bonus. Ironically, both were seeking to join Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer as the only men to have won the World Cup as player and coach, but of the two the smart money would have been on Dunga.
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He seemed like he had a plan: His Brazil team had the results all through the qualifying tournament and in the World Cup too, but lost—and this will hurt him the most—in the mental battle against the Netherlands. A goal up into the second half, the game was theirs; then they lost the plot, lost their heads and lost the game. They lived up to their coach’s name, which translates as “Dopey”.
Maradona never looked like he had a plan. After stumbling through the qualifying rounds, where there was a real danger of missing out, his Argentina side failed to deliver on their full potential. His tactical nous had always been in doubt, and never more so than when his side were eviscerated in that fateful game against Germany.
He seemed unable to comprehend the situation and, crucially, failed to deploy his most experienced playmaker, Juan Sebastian Veron—the man many saw as the team’s real tactician.
The inability of great players to make great coaches is not confined to football alone and is a topic for discussion at a larger forum, but suffice to say that none of the four coaches in the semi-finals were great players. Joachim Loew’s playing career, for instance, peaked with Germany’s under-21 side, while Spain’s coach Vicente del Bosque won a slew of medals as a defender with Real Madrid but never had individual greatness.
Perhaps great players play by instinct, without really understanding where it comes from, and consequently are unable to inspire others to do the same.
Certainly that unpredictability was Maradona’s strongest suit as a player but his greatest failing as a coach. His relationship with the media, for one, has been tempestuous, the lowlight being his infamous, unprintable statement just after Argentina qualified for the World Cup.
Watching him at press conferences, it seems Maradona never really adjusted to the gravitas needed of a coach; or perhaps he felt it wasn’t needed anyway. The day before the Germany game, he swaggered into the room for half an hour of cheeky smiles and double entendres, obviously playing to the gallery (the mixed composition of the press corps ensures he has many more fans sitting opposite him than critics). He oozes charisma and for someone so short—even Messi is taller than him—has the remarkable ability to speak from above.
He began with a grim visage and a gravelly, almost growly voice. Within minutes, though, he had cracked up. When the Fifa media minder sitting next to him jogged his arm to draw his attention, his response was sharp: “If you touch me like that… I have been focused for two months.”
This was a reference to a question earlier in the tournament, on his practice of hugging his players before every game. “No! I like women!” he had said at the time. “I’m dating Veronica. She is 31. She is blonde. She is very pretty! I may have my weaknesses towards some of my players, but that’s normal.”
Asked a long question, he said, “You have written a book with your question.” And after answering it: “Did it satisfy you? I forgot what the first part was.” His machismo came out when he bantered with an English woman journalist. Unfortunately, neither could really understand the other and the exchange was one-sided—the woman clearly not amused and struggling to continue with a rational line of questioning in the face of raucous laughter from the largely male gathering.
When the questions were done, the exit was swift. “Thank you all very much. Good night, I’m off to have dinner.” And with a cheeky grin, he picked up the obligatory Jabulani placed on the table and marched out of the room.
I didn’t attend his press conference the next day. I couldn’t; sometimes you put the personal above the professional. The team is being missed all across India but for me he was the real star, a character larger than life—certainly larger than his five-foot-nothing—in the regulated, antiseptic world of the press conference room. Shame about the tactics, though.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo and is covering the World Cup for their sister website Soccernet. He has been writing for us through the tournament.
Write to Jayaditya at email@example.com