As the World Cup began, Diego Maradona was a figure of absurdity and fun—a perverse and lunatic figure, his ego as bloated as his abdomen. On the sidelines, bearded and animated as he was during his days of cocaine and Castro, he wore two huge wristwatches at once. He forced his hotel to rebuild his suite to include a bidet. He had lost, in qualifying, to Bolivia, and favored an absurd strategy that committed everything to attack, a sugared-up video game kind of football. Though his side is short on fullbacks and lacks a smooth link between defense and attack, he neglected to bring the veteran Inter Milan pair of Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti, who would have filled those roles brilliantly, because their natural authority might have rivaled his own. For all the brilliant talent in the squad, Maradona had inserted into his starting 11 the hapless left winger Jonas Gutierrez, who played last year in the second tier of English football—and then insisted on playing him out of position. And yet for all this lunacy, Argentina has begun to look formidable, and the possibility has begun to creep in that Maradona will emerge as the most influential figure of the World Cup.
If a single theme has emerged over the World Cup’s first two weeks, it has been the ways in which the South American sides—with their imbalanced attacks and unconventional formations—have made the European approach seem fatally conventional. Maradona doesn’t need the tactical sophistication of Uruguay’s Oscar Tabarez of Chile’s Marcelo Bielsa—the talent at Argentina’s disposal is so immense that some have argued the roster contains the greatest collection of strikers a country has ever brought to a World Cup. But even Maradona’s lineup choices have a touch of oddball genius to them. In the hardman Javier Mascherano, the ferocious, hydrant-shaped striker Carlos Tevez and his partner Gonzalo Higuain, who has exhibited for Argentina and Real Madrid perhaps the most deadly off-the-ball movement of any striker in the world, Maradona has created around his star Lionel Messi a side of supporting players who do not need the ball to challenge a defense, and so can react to Messi’s genius while deferring to it.
Despite Messi’s brilliance, Argentina has not been the aesthete’s pick this World Cup, as it has been in the past. Some of the most elegant Argentine players have been given diminished roles or left behind entirely—the thrilling young attacker Kun Aguero, Zanetti and Cambiasso. But football for Maradona has never been about elegance. If Pele’s game seemed an alternate exhibition of joy, Maradona’s was about ferocity. He didn’t depart from the traditional brutality of Argentine football so much as channel it in a different direction, in headlong, insistent charges at goal. If Pele always seemed like he was playing for something (a certain artistic principle, a certain sporting standard), Maradona, the champion of the Buenos Aires ghetto, always seemed to be playing against. Messi is a different character then Maradona – more genial, less possessed. But behind him Maradona has assembled a defensive core (Samuel, Mascherano, DeMichelis and Heinze) that depends upon a measure of violence. And through them you can see Maradona’s own imprint on the team—the insistence that football is not about style, or tactics, but about passion.
In order to reach the final, Maradona’s Argentina would have to overcome perhaps the two most impressive sides so far (Germany and Brazil) and its coach’s own, nearly ideological insistence on rebuking conventional wisdom about how football teams are assembled, and matches won. But if Argentina wins it will be with a personality that is its coach’s and not its star’s—the insistence that greatness comes from the edge of illogic, and madness. And Diego Maradona will have proved the point that he has spent three decades insisting upon: That the establishment has it wrong, and that in sport as in politics, the primitive emotions are more important than the cultivated ones.