FOX Soccer Exclusive
Maradona's legacy on line at World Cup
The first time I stepped foot in Buenos Aires, a mob of photographers and reporters rushed towards me at the airport.
Quite a reception, I thought. But suddenly the throng turned right and surrounded a single man. Curious, I moved closer to see who all the fuss was about. Much to my surprise, it was Him. The most revered man in Argentina was standing in the middle of the maelstrom of flashing lights and screaming questions.
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That was the day, in late October of 2008, that Maradona took over the Argentina national team from Alfio Basile. The nation's World Cup qualifying hopes were slowly slipping -- the team was in third place in CONMEBOL qualifying at the time -- and Maradona was brought in to ignite their passion and conjure up some legendary magic.
The Argentines are always one of the quadrennial favorites, but for all the hype and ballyhoo, the Albicelestes haven't lifted the trophy in 24 years.
However untested in the managerial game, El Diez got the call.
Things did not start out well. A disastrous string of results -- including a 6-1 shellacking in La Paz -- meant that Argentina, despite its immense talent, did not secure its World Cup qualification until the penultimate matchday.
However ugly it was along the way, Maradona did his job: his team is going to South Africa this summer.
Widely considered the greatest to ever play the game (it's always down to Maradona and Pele when you have that argument), the 1986 World Cup winner is vying to become only the third man to win the title as both player and manager. But while Brazil's Mario Zagallo and Germany's Franz Beckenbauer became students of the game after their playing careers (in truth, those two always had a more cerebral view of it), Maradona, to put it kindly, went another route.
His post-career escapades are well documented, including a cocaine overdose that almost cost him his life, overeating (and a subsequent gastric bypass operation), tax evasion in Italy ... the list goes on.
Through it all, the Argentine people still adore and worship the man. Whatever his flaws, he always gave his heart and soul for Argentina, and his people will never forget that.
So far, however, his questionable decisions are testing Argentina's loyalty. The stunning exclusion of star players Esteban Cambiasso, Lisandro Lopez and Javier Zanetti made more than one Argentine say, "Que?"
It's also apparent after viewing the strength of his offensive selections in comparison to his defensive ones that Maradona believes his team can score three goals a game while giving up two. Fuzzy math to say the least, but somehow it must all add up in the manager's head.
Should Maradona defy his critics and actually go on and win the World Cup, it's a safe bet that Maradonaism will replace Catholocism as the reigning belief system in Argentina (it's practically been a neck-and-neck race since 1986 anyway).
And while anything can happen in a World Cup, especially one in neutral territory like this summer's edition, the poor results under his management so far cannot be ignored.
To be sure, the Albicelestes have the talent to win the whole thing. But the endless distractions and media buzz created by their manager is likely to have a negative effect on the team. While Argentina finds itself in a more than manageable group, when your side is led by the world's best player in Lionel Messi, just reaching the second round isn't good enough.
Speaking of Messi, why hasn't he performed as well with the national side as he does with Barcelona? Quite simply, Maradona doesn't have Xavi. The lack of an energetic playmaker (the team will be relying on 35-year-old, Argentina-based Juan Sebastian Veron) will starve Messi of the invaluable service that allows him to thrive. Isolating and cultivating such a playmaker was Maradona's primary task over the last two years -- and he failed to do so. Will that come back to haunt him?
It's already clear that, in comparing his analytical (and public relations) skills with those of Zagallo and Beckenbauer, Maradona does not stack up well. But it's unfair to judge the man until after the World Cup. Success will be the ultimate determining factor of the job he's done. Still, the initial signs, while not necessarily pointing to disaster, are not great. There's no reason to believe that his curious roster choices (at least on the defensive side) will somehow fix the problems that put qualifying in peril from the start.
Still, it's Maradona. Maybe he knows something we don't about the big stage. Like that day in the airport in Buenos Aires before he got whisked away in a little Peugeot (not a limo to my surprise), he's used to the lights and fanfare. That's where he did his best work 24 years ago. Maybe that's where he'll do his best work again.
The lights won't get any brighter than in South Africa.
Robert Burns is the senior editor for FoxSoccer.com.