Wednesday 24 January 2018

Living with Diego

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

DIEGO Maradona has found lust in translation. The eyes reflect the surprise of what his earphones are telling him.

He is under the impression that a member of the audience has suggested that his frenzied unleashing of hugs and kisses upon his players is hinting at a deeper kind of bond between men, the kind which he would not approve of.

The English speaking hack had asked if the open shows of affection, of which there were many examples in the comfortable victory over South Korea an hour previously, were a calculated plan. "Can love win the World Cup?" he concluded.

Knowing chuckles follow, because the nuances are often lost when the faceless translator in a nearby booth converts it to the recipient's native tongue.

It's inevitable that the Spanish version received by Maradona would transform the cheesy element into something entirely different.

He pauses, looking aghast and then, with precise comic timing, stares directly at the inquisitor. "Well, I still prefer women," he exclaims, "I am dating Veronica who is blond and 31 years old."

Another pause, and finally the punchline. "No," he continues, "I have not gone limp wristed."

The room cracks up with laughter. Diego's face creases into a smile too. This is his stage.

ARGENTINA are doing things differently here. The 24 hours before a game are generally controlled by FIFA protocol. Nations are asked to conduct their eve of match press duties in the match stadium.

Diego decided otherwise. On Wednesday, the Argentines refused to come to Johannesburg. Instead, they demanded to go through the motions in Pretoria, which complicated the organisers' preparations for the meeting there between South Africa and Uruguay that evening.


The room was too small to satisfy demand. Numerous press men and women ended up locked outside, including an understandably miffed contingent from the manager's homeland. Sure enough, he delivered a typically theatrical display, deriding old foe Pele as well as Michel Platini. A normal day's work.

Match day at Soccer City brings anticipation to new levels. In normal circumstances, Argentina-South Korea is a busy affair, yet the Maradona factor has raised it to category A. The global circus wants a piece of the action.

Down in the media centre, things are even more undignified than usual. The game is over-subscribed, and the waiting list is largely comprised of representatives from countries who didn't qualify.

The vagaries of alphabetic order mean that the guests from the Republic of Ireland have to wait until their counterparts from football hotbeds like Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nicaragua are satisfied. It is one of the rare moments in life where the retention of the Free State seems like a good idea in hindsight.

Once inside, there are two notable attractions. Firstly, the game, and secondly, the goings on in the Argentine technical area.

Both are immensely entertaining. Maradona prowls the sideline, wearing a suit that looks a size too big. In his ideal world, he'd be in the comfort of his preferred tracksuit. Alas, his daughters Giannina and Dalma cracked the whip and he relented.

The removal of the beard was a request too far, however. He hasn't shaved since incurring a nasty bite from his dog back in March, so his players run the risk of a rash when he plants a smacker on each cheek before they enter the arena.

He paces along the sideline from the outset, receiving the odd tap on the shoulder from the fourth official for veering out of his designated space. The South Americans are in control and, as a consequence, he is reasonably calm. Then, the luckless Chu-Young Park inadvertently steers a Lionel Messi free-kick past his own goalkeeper. Latin celebrations ensue.

Maradona wraps his arms around a few subs before a vain attempt to join a group huddle, which he ends up pushing along like a scrum half trying to heave with the pack. Finally, there is a warm embrace with assistants Hector Enrique and his best pal, Alejandro Mancuso.

It's more of the same after the advantage is doubled, with hugs exchanged like partners at a ceili.

The howler from Martin Demichelis throws South Korea a lifeline, and Maradona puts his arms behind his head, shocked rather than disgusted. There is no ranting and raving. Opposite number Huh Jung-Moo, an old foe, opts for an understated half-hug with his assistant.

Things are a bit more tense after the interval, with the arms no longer behind his back and now folded as the Koreans apply pressure although he still finds time to back heel an aimless clearance towards the fourth official, much to the crowd's delight.

A conference with his assistants prompts a switch with Giannina's husband, otherwise known as Sergio Aguero, summoned for a pep talk before his introduction.

Aguero's role in the decisive third goal prompts the wildest reaction of them all. Maradona, Mancuso and Enrique dance a jig of congratulation, which is repeated when the sub helps create the hat-trick for Gonzalo Higuain. An injury-time save from Sergio Romero is marked with an elaborate fist pump by the gaffer, who shipped flak for promoting the AZ Alkmaar 'keeper into the breach.

Full-time is the catalyst for another long bout of man-love, with Maradona scuttling towards the centre circle to seek out everyone in turn. He ignores the Koreans though, belatedly glancing towards Jung-Moo.

Mancuso does go over to express commiserations. By this stage, Diego has sought out Messi, who came to life in the last quarter, pulling him close as they head down the tunnel.

He keeps the press waiting, emerging long after Jung-Moo and man-of-the-match Higuain, dressed down into his beloved trackie.

Naturally, he's in chipper form, throwing out the platitudes and even issuing an apology to Platini. "I received a letter in which he clarified that he did not say what you journalists said he said about me. For this reason, I apologise to Platini, but not to Pele." Never to Pele.

The 23-man squad are described as a family, their clinical attitude compared to animals in a safari. Calls for the head of Demichelis are rebuffed.

"These things can happen," he explains. "Mistakes like this can make you stronger."

It's time to go now. The large watch on his right hand is ticking, and the press officer is anxious to move things along.

Fittingly, the star of the show departs with a positive message. "We are happy and we have peace of mind," he remarked, with a grin.

In Diego's world, it can only stay still for so long.

Irish Independent

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