Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Loose Vuvuzela: Roger Cohen on Maradona

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in The International Herald Tribune

By Roger Cohen
JOHANNESBURG — They’re calling him the World Cup’s “loose vuvuzela.” They’re swooning as he spreads the love, jumping into his players’ arms like some cuddly bear with diamond earrings and no neck.
They can’t get enough of his deadpan quotes, as when he responds to a question about his kiss-and-hug management style by saying he still prefers women, specifically his girlfriend “Veronica who is blonde and 31.”
At 49, Diego Armando Maradona is neither blonde nor 31. But he is Mr. Unscripted in the age of spin, the Hugo Chávez of global soccer. As coach of an outrageously talented Argentine team, one thrown together in the image of his own extravagant skills, Maradona is having a good World Cup.
To genius much is permitted. And so it should be.
The contrast with some of Maradona’s more pinched rivals, including the French coach Raymond Domenech and the England manager Fabio Capello, could not be more extreme. Domenech wears the expression of a man who’d rather be reading Foucault as “Les Bleus” implode and then take to the barricades in open mutiny.
As for Capello, he’s imposed a regimen so strict that his players, deprived of their WAGs (wives and girlfriends), look vaguely unhinged. Many European prisons allow conjugal visits; not Capello. Wayne Rooney has gone on a walkabout. The body language of the English players suggests dead men walking.
England right now is to football what the vuvuzela is to music: one note going nowhere.
I’ve had my doubts about Capello since he stripped John Terry of the English captaincy earlier this year because he had an affair. For an Italian, that seemed a little rich. Discipline is all very well, but Terry’s a leader and would have led. England doesn’t do the barricades, but insurrection is close.
So here we are, 10 days into the first African World Cup, a power-shift event. And it’s proving a nice illustration of the effectiveness of asymmetrical warfare.
Traditional powers with the big guns are struggling: Italy, France, England — even Germany and Spain. The insurgents — Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovenia, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico — are pulling off deadly ambushes (and for once the gutsy Americans are not targets.) Switzerland, in its 1-0 defeat of Spain, proved unpredictable for the first time in history. The cuckoos lost their clocks.
Even North Korea, with zero fans — Kim Jung-Il would not allow them out of his police state — showed surprising tenacity until their Portuguese debacle. They’ve been using a public gym (“Virgin Active” in Eco Park) to train because they could not afford a facility.
Sorry, they do have 100 “fans,” a platoon of Chinese nationals hired by Pyongyang and not available for interview. In the realm of the bizarre, this outfit runs Maradona close.
But the Argentine coach — who tried more than 100 players during the qualifying rounds — wins. He’s already told Pelé to “go back to the museum.” He’s dismissed the UEFA president, Michel Platini, as a know-all (before mumbling an apology).
In shiny suit and shiny brogues, he prowls the demarcated pitch-side area during matches, kicking imaginary balls, looking every inch the caged coach. When it’s over he plants a kiss on each player. No Foucault for him, no training manual, no teleprompter, no quote masseur. He’ll go with the wisdom of the Buenos Aires shanties.
I said genius. Maradona had it. His “goal of the century” in the 1986 quarter-final against England, when he weaved past six players, lives in memory, as does his “Hand of God” effort in the same game. Both were outrageous. His battles against drugs and obesity since retirement have been as public as they were painful. Like his country, which has every gift but often squandered them as it meandered through the 20th century, he’s veered this way and that.
But passion never left him. Maradona knows there’s no ballet without a prima ballerina.
In the age of the smothering midfield — using not one but two defensive midfield players is the new, new thing here — Maradona is having none of it. He’s playing a winger of silky skills, Angel Di María, the rampaging Carlos Tévez, and that clinical poacher, Gonzalo Higuaín. Above all, in his own No. 10 shirt, he has a fellow genius, and fellow little guy (at all of 5-foot-7), the 22-year-old Lionel Messi.
Messi’s destruction of South Korea in Argentina’s 4-1 victory did not include a goal of his own (Higuaín got three) but included everything else in a footballer’s repertoire: dinked passes of breathtaking subtlety, mazy dribbles, swerving crosses, staggering ball control at speed, and 360-degree vision of the pitch. Maradona has rightly told Messi to play wherever he likes.
The beautiful game has traditionally been Brazil’s preserve. But Dunga, the Brazilian coach, is one of those two-holding-midfielder guys. He’s Mr. Dour to Argentina’s Mr. Drama. Still, Brazil must samba and in Robinho and the awakening Kaká, there have been flashes. An epic battle looms. Brazil may have the discipline Argentina lacks in the breach.
For now, however, the loose vuvuzela approach has trumped WAG control. Score one for the little guys and for unscripted living.

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