Sport Soccer

Sunday 21 January 2018

Icon Diego casts long shadow

David Kelly

David Kelly

In Buenos Aires this summer, a parliamentarian suggested a statue of Diego Maradona be erected in the capital to commemorate his managerial achievements.

Just 38 days later and the Argentinean press officer is in Dublin suggesting we might require a photocopied résumé of Maradona's successor's career highlights.

Argentina's management has gone from box office to back office.

Maradona asked Argentina not to cry for him but they still pine terribly, the country's football fervour reduced to a grudging simmer after the German annihilation and typically elaborate exit stage left of their idol.

Caretaker Sergio Batista may not share El Diego's personality but 'El Checho' does not deserve to have his career reduced to the splutterings of a Xerox machine.

Now shorn of the beard, this past pass master surveyed the same hallowed Mexican turf as his managerial predecessor during the country's extraordinary 1986 triumph, a midfield maestro whose deft precision paled in comparison to the accompanying genius.

"He didn't need to run to win possession," Maradona said in his autobiography of his colleague, subsequently suspended for the 1990 final. "He was like an octopus who sucked in the ball."

Batista also shared his more famous colleague's weakness for elaborate drug ingestion during the 1990s but emerged to become a respected managerial figure.

priceless

The establishment favourite to succeed Maradona, 48-year-old Batista has arguably shown himself to be a more sympathetic curator of his country's most priceless jewel, Lionel Messi.

Batista managed the gold medal side at the Beijing Olympics -- where Messi joined other such luminaries as Javier Mascherano and Sergio Aguero -- and few other managers may have persuaded the world's best player to haul himself halfway across the world for a friendly.

Of course, the Argentineans are on a wedge of near to €1m to pitch up in Dublin, so Messi's presence is probably a deal-clincher; still, the player didn't have to pick up the phone and ring his new boss last week to independently reiterate his intention to arrive direct from Barcelona's weekend friendly in the Far East.

Messi's absence as an incendiary figure in South Africa compounded Argentinean disappointment; Maradona's bizarre tactics heaved too much pressure upon shoulders already burdened with excess expectations.

Batista, who aims to emulate the egalitarian style that his protégé enjoys in the Nou Camp with Barcelona, will be eager to show his putative employers that if he can get the best out of Messi in the next month -- Spain are the next opponents in September -- then the AFA can take down the 'smart boy wanted' posters.

Surely, the AFA's president Julio Grondona, who still secretly covets Maradona's future return as manager, would have been impressed when arriving at Dublin Airport at the ungodly hour of 1.30 yesterday morning to ferry an eager if tired Messi to Carton House.

"I am happy that he arrived here with a positive attitude," Batista tells us. "He arrived with a smile on his face and considering he's come from halfway around the world, from Beijing via Barcelona, it would have been easy for Lionel to say 'I can't be bothered. It's an awkward time'. That says a lot about his character.

"In two years it's amazing how much he has matured as an individual. In the way in which he talks to the press, he's a lot more mature than he used to be and is a good character."

Messi may have doffed his mournful black cap to the departed Maradona last week but his presence here owes much to his fidelity to the man who first guided him on to the international stage.

"It could be a chance to leave things behind and move forward to confront this new challenge and all those on the horizon," according to Messi who, naturally enough, remained in bed for much of yesterday afternoon.

And yet Carlos Bianchi, the only manager to win four Copa Libertadores titles, remains the popular favourite; but he has serially spurned the role and Grondona's thinly veiled indifference to the 61-year-old complicates matters.

Estudiantes manager Alejandro Sabella, a former Sheffield United and Leeds player in the late 1970s, Boca Juniors coach Claudio Borghi and Racing Club boss Miguel Angel Russo are also touted.

Batista's incumbency marks him down as favourite; however, Argentina won't play competitively before the October decision and friendly matches represent unsatisfactory auditions.

"I'm here to talk about my role," he says when asked about speculation concerning a typically dramatic Maradona plot change. "I'm not the person who will decide any aspect of Maradona's future.

"I'd prefer to be judged on not one game but on a long-term project, maybe to 2014, and also to be judged on what I have done up to now -- not on one game tomorrow night. I'd also like to be judged on what I've achieved in the national set-up on a whole until now.

"I don't think it's for me to make a comparison of how they played before.

Forward

"I'm here not to look back but to look forward. I know about two-thirds of the squad from the Beijing Olympics when I was coach and I know them as men and players. The rest I have been on the phone to prior to this get -together. I am getting to know them."

It's not all been sweetness and light. Carlos Tevez has been less than vocal about the new regime; a sore throat rules him out, much to the confusion of the visiting press, while a more legitimate ailment sidelines Sergio Aguero.

Players returning to tonight's action, such as Fernando Gago, Jesus Datolo Ever Banega and Ezequiel Lavezzi, would seem to indicate the sweeping changes in Argentinean football.

But then you realise Maradona actually picked this squad. The diminutive demigod still casts a giant shadow.

Irish Independent

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