Just when it seemed that his reign had finally gotten some traction, after a mostly successful World Cup and a fairly positive demeanor throughout, the Argentine Futbol Federation (AFA) declined Diego Maradona’s conditions for a new deal and effectively started the search for a new national team manager. What exactly happened remains less than clear, with recriminations and backstabbing allegations circulating among Argentina’s futbol circles, some pro-Diego, including the nation’s president, others apparently pleased to see him go. In an emotional exit statement, Maradona alleged betrayal, lies and deceit involving some of the people closest to him, AFA President Julio Grondona and long-time mentor and national team general manager, Carlos Bilardo.
Grondona was said to revert on a promise made in South Africa, after the Germany match, to continue with Diego. Back in Buenos Aires, the relationship between the two men became more distant, leading to a climactic decision a couple of days ago. On the surface, the reason for his contract not being renewed had to do with Diego’s insistence that his staff be allowed to continue. Grondona asked Diego to continue without seven of his assistants, something that Maradona refused categorically. “I defend my people, from the masseuse to the kit man,” he said. “I have a code that they [Grondona and Bilardo] don’t have.”
Of course, Grondona knows that about Diego. Forcing him to change his assistants may appear to be a reasonable request from the AFA, but the real motivation was not to change the men surrounding Maradona and the national team. Remember the image of Diego at the World Cup flanked by two guys, all three wearing shark skin suits a la Miami circa 1985, looking sort of gangster comical – “I’ll get the women, you get the car, he gets the cocaine.” Diego trusts those guys with his life. They are always around him. Look at the Kusturica film made about Diego, look at previous appointments. They are not futbol guys, and they more than probably contributed in the past to Diego’s problems off the field, but Diego made it clear to Grondona that they are a package.
Trust – an invaluable element. Every manager, big or small club, negotiates with the owner about bringing his own people. Look at Mourinho, look at Mancini at Man City, look at Benitez. A trustful set of eyes around the club-house, a familiar presence enables the manager to work more effectively. Those two guys, one might have been officially a masseur and the other an equipment manager, really were just Diego’s trustful eyes who, he felt, always have his back. It was Bilardo in particular that had a different opinion in this regard. Bilardo regularly clashed with Maradona’s two right-hand guys, Alejandro Mancuso and Héctor Enrique. Diego took notice: “While we were in mourning [after being knocked out of the World Cup], he was working in the shadows to have us thrown out.” Moreover, Bilardo will be staying on at the AFA. By demanding that Maradona sack his assistants, Grondona was in fact sacking Maradona.
Only the team, the AFA, particularly Bilardo and Grondona, were in a position to judge the impact of the seven assistants on the team’s success. This code of loyalty that he referred to might have denied Argentina some success – how were Cambiasso and Zanetti left out in favor of guys like Palermo and Arce? He shunned a Diego Milito in stupendous form, relying too much on Tevez and DiMaria. Too little Veron, too much Bolatti and Maxi Rodriguez, neither of who is in the first 11 at each respective club. Diego rolls with his guys. He is a barrio man through and through and that code is embedded in him, good and bad.
The worst way to hurt Diego is to show him that he is not loved, or in this case not loved enough to be wanted. He sees himself as the direct link to the people, the masses all over Argentina, and he really wanted to re-affirm his idol status with them by succeeding as a coach too. Less than two years into his eventful tenure, he no longer has the opportunity, the privilege to coach Messi’s Argentina. Hopefully he will restore calm and move on proudly. Diego has finally matured a bit as a manager and as a man, his new Cervantes look serves him well. He would be best advised to take a manager position at a prestigious cub and prove that he is a competent, serious, devoted, winning manager. Then the onus will be on Grondona and Bilardo to explain why they let Diego go this time around.