By Kaufmann | July 4, 2010 10 Comments »
The Letter, entitled ‘An Apology to Maradona, a Rolicking Genius’, was published just before yesterday’s World Cup game between Argentina and Germany. Excerpted, it reads:…
“Dear Diego: It is high time that we critics say sorry, and thank you. We misjudged your appointment as coach. We believed that the 78-year-old president of Argentina’s soccer federation, had lost reason in asking you, a fading icon without a coaching badge, to lead it through this World Cup. Well, so much for [our] so-called expertise. You liberate the team, play to its strengths, attack, attack, attack… And you also liberate us. When your team rips apart the caution of opponents, we feel like children who all want to be attackers. [Your] enthusiasm reminds us that soccer is a simple game. Your team has superior attacking skills, so let it play to its nature… Genius, playing to your own rules.
You know, but probably do not care, that only two men have won the World Cup as a player and a coach. Mário Zagallo for Brazil… Franz Beckenbauer captained Germany to the title in 1974, and was its manager in 1990… [Like you], Beckenbauer had no background on the sideline.
[I]t’s time to say mea culpa, and mean it.”
What’s the big deal here? Thousands of letters are written to famous people every day, some more outrageous than others.
Well, this ‘Letter’ appeared as a prominent column in the New York Times, penned by no other than the NYT’s own noted soccer writer Rob Hughes. Within hours of his very public apology to Maradona in the NYT, Maradona’s national soccer team was in tatters, having been trashed 4-0 by Germany in the worst defeat in a World Cup game in 36 years.
For starters, the New York Times column should obviously qualify as the worst-timed piece of writing during this World Cup in South Africa (and arguably in any Cup). That is the easy part; the writer would not have published such an outrageous piece one day later.
The NYT article would also qualify atop the ‘chutzpah‘ index, since the NYT writer represents himself as the voice for all football critics. Not once he used ’I' in his own piece, instead writes as ‘We critics’ in his Letter full of hyperbole. And it is as if the writer, though a soccer pundit, did not realize that Argentina, before its game against Germany, had not yet met its match and been truly tested in this World Cup, having played against weaker teams that were ranked so much lower in the soccer world standings. Argentina beating weaker teams can easily result from the brilliance of key players; in spite of the failings of a coach.
That was certainly the case regarding the 3 games Argentina played against weak teams in his Group at the Cup, easily qualifying to play Mexico in the round-of-16, when Argentina also benefitted from a glaring offside goal that the referee could not annul because the video replay (which FIFA bans from being an input to the ref’s decision!) exposed to all in the stadium, including the ref, that the goal was invalid by a mile. Such was Argentina’s over-hyped trajectory at the South Africa World Cup, prior to meeting its (German) match. On that flimsy basis we were all served the NYT Letter of Apology to Maradona.
But there is a much deeper problem. The Letter betrays ignorance regarding what it takes to be a great soccer coach, and the importance of good governance, at both the institutional and national level, to attain lofty results in soccer.
The misleading comparison with the great Franz Beckenbauer illustrates one key failing of the Letter. Beckenbauer may not have had formal coaching credentials when he became the manager (coach) of Germany’s national team in 1990, but he was already known as a brilliant tactician on the field. Beckenbauer the player had invented the football role of the attacker sweeper, or libero. As a manager of the German national team and of various well known soccer clubs he accumulated a number of championship trophies. Both as a player and coach he exhibited work ethic and discipline. These virtues sharply contrast Beckenbauer with Maradona.
Maradona disastrous coaching trajectory in past years is well known. Prior to being asked to coach the national team preparing for the South Africa World Cup, he had tried to coach two club teams in Argentina, winning 3 games out of 23 (with one of the teams folding altogether). He had started coaching right after being banned from soccer for over a year following the World Cup in the U.S. in 1994, due to his (recurrent) doping.
During the qualifying stage prior to the current World Cup in South Africa, Maradona’s team nearly failed to make it to the World Cup, in spite of playing against so many less talented South American teams. The stories surrounding his work ethic and lack of discipline as a coach are also well known, and, together with his repeated bouts with drugs and alcohol, provide a very poor example to millions of soccer youth who know what a gifted player he was in the past.
Simply stated, good governance at the institutional level, whether for a soccer team or another organization, is the ability of the team to attain results where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. In the ongoing soccer World Cup, countries like Ghana, Uruguay, Paraguay and arguably South Korea, Japan, Slovakia, the U.S. and Chile, may belong to this group, among others: their achievements are not mainly due to numerous world stars in their team, but their teamwork instead.
Italy, England, France and some African teams (other than Ghana and South Africa) clearly belong to the group where the ‘whole-is-much-less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts’, and now I would also add Argentina and Brazil to that group. The quality of the coach, via the team’s strategy, tactics, and discipline, is critical in determining whether the whole exceeds or not the sum of its parts.
Yesterday’s lopsided Germany-Argentina game was a case study of contrasts in teamwork, preparation, and discipline. The defensive breakdowns by Argentina were egregious, contrasting the effectiveness of the German’s defense. And Germany not only showed how potent (and often exciting) its offense can be, but it exhibited such discipline that it was not caught offside a single time, while Argentina had 5 offsides! The superior collective physical fitness preparation of Germany was also in clear evidence.
Good governance at the organizational level (which gets reflected in the quality and effectiveness of the manager-coach) tends to be correlated with good governance at the national level (even if not hand-in-hand in every case). Countries like the Netherlands and Germany are among the best governed in the world, while Uruguay (alongside Chile) is atop governance ratings in Latin America.
Countries like Argentina, Nigeria, Greece and Italy have much poorer standards of national governance. No wonder that the quality of governance at the national level often better explains success in soccer than the country’s size (economy, population). Uruguay, a country with less than 4 million people, and Netherlands, with only 16 million, both advancing to the semi-finals, illustrate the point.
Instead of a New York Times letter of apology to Maradona, what is needed is the exact opposite: a letter of apology to the millions of devoted Argentinian and world soccer fans (including truly yours), who admire the superb quality of Argentinian players. Due to misgovernance, these great players were not guided to play at the standards of cohesion, superb physical training, and discipline required to compete with the powerhouses at the World Cup.
Subpar governance extending beyond the coach in the Argentinian case is exemplified by the fact that Maradona yesterday had the gall to declare right after the debacle with Germany that he will consider his own future as the national team coach, betraying a complete failure of accountability by himself, by the Argentinian national soccer federation, and beyond.
Last, but not least, a serious open letter regarding Argentina at the World Cup should make clear to the current generation of young soccer players and fans that, irrespective of Maradona’s fantastic playing skills decades ago, his antics in recent and not-so-recent years are anathema to what a role model in sports ought to be, and ultimately they do result in personal and team failure.