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Apology Letter to Maradona, or to the Soccer World?: Don’t cry for me Argentina

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.

Topics: Measurement Frontiers, Rule of Law, Transparency | | 10 Comments

10 Responses to “Apology Letter to Maradona, or to the Soccer World?: Don’t cry for me Argentina”

  1. Jean-Louis Sarbib Says:
    July 5th, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    Great post which makes a strong and much needed point. You could add the saga of the French team as another time when the whole was less than the sum of its parts, because of appalling governance.

  2. Kaufmann Says:
    July 5th, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    Jean-Louis, fully agree, and in this piece I mentioned that “France (and some others) clearly belong to the group where the ‘whole-is-much-less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts’…”. If the NYTimes Letter of Apology would have been written to the French coach Raymond Domenech then I would have had much more than one sentence on France. At any rate, I ended my previous blog entry on soccer and governance (ten days ago, here) suggesting that “Governance matters, and below the lofty national level as well: some teams, such as Ghana, Chile, South Korea, the Netherlands, Japan and the US, thanks to good governance and leadership, have managed to subscribe to the motto that ‘the whole can be much more than the sum of its parts’, contrasting teams like Italy, France and Cameroon, where they have shown how much less the whole can be than the sum of its parts when misgovernance is rife.”

  3. Rinus van Klinken Says:
    July 6th, 2010 at 12:36 am

    A stimultating posting. It is indeed interesting to reflect on the link between (good) governance and (football) outcomes. There is an obvious limit: with all the good governance in the world, it is unlikely that a team of mediocre players is going to get very far.
    What I miss though is a reflection on leadership. Where you put governance, in a number of instances I could read: good leadership (e.g. in the example of Beckenbauer, or to use the example of my own countryman: Johan Cruyff). I realise that a good leader can not make all the difference, but can a leader in some situations not overcome poor goverance barriers?

  4. Kaufmann Says:
    July 6th, 2010 at 3:50 am

    Rinus, yes, leadership is very important, and while it is part and parcel of good governance (how is good leadership attained, how and who selects the team captain and the coach and the head of the national association, etc?), I should have been more explicit about that aspect. And leadership and governance of a team can substantially improve its results, but not ensure lofty championships if talent is lacking.

  5. Giulio de Tommaso Says:
    July 6th, 2010 at 4:52 am

    Dani

    I also read the article you are referring to and your points tend to confirm my thoughts. I must say, I agree with the general arguments that you bring forward in your argument. But I would contend that Maradona and Argentina are not necessarily the best example.

    I think that it is lack of governance, corruption and constant political interference that has hampered the development of African Soccer, for example. A number of examples come to mind: I was reading that in Cameroun there is an ex player, now coach, whose name I do not remember, that was tapped to qualify its team for several of the past world cups, only to get replaced by a western coach the moment they qualify; Just recently, the Nigerian president just recently demanding that the team stop playing for two years because it has failed to qualify to the quarterfinals; the repeated instances of players having to strike to get paid their agreed rates (Cameroun for example in one of the 1980′s world cup, just quitting and losing to USSR 6-1 in protest for not being paid. All these examples point to the lack of governance issues that you are highlighting and indeed probably reflect the poor governance structure at the national level.

    France’s self destruction on this world cup is clearly also attributable to festering governance issues within the federations which enabled a flawed ineffective coach to remain at the helm of the team longer than any other coach in history, although I’m not so sure what sort of national parallel we can draw out of that.

    But the case of Argentina on the one hand, Italy on the other, England and Brazil are not so clear cut.

    First, Argentina, Brazil and Italy are among the most successful soccer nations in the world, winning 11 of the last seventeen world cups. Argentina has won more national team level competitions (19) than anyone in the world. They have been consistently atop the world rankings and among the world elite since there have been world cups. They win a lot, at any time, irrispective of circumstances. This points to historically good governance of the game, which often is different from tne national governance.

    Historically Argentina has won the world cup at moments in which its national governance was quite poor (1978, during difficult periods of its military dictatorship and 1986 – after the Malvinas wars, only at the beginning of a chaotic return to democracy and weathering a disastrous economic situation. I have not done the research, about Brazil, but I suspect it could be similar. Italy is quite opposite, it seems. It won when its national governance is at its highest. (assuming fascism is considered a period of good national governance)

    In fact it seems that argentinean soccer does better when national governance is poor than when it is good. Bilardo, who is now on Maradona’s staff was hardly considered then an excellent coach, and even less so now.

    Secondly, Argentina’s soccer problems predated Maradona and in fact led to his return. Over the past several years – as many as eight or twelve, Argentina’s soccer had been ” stuck on neutral” . It was producing excellent players who strove individually, but lacked the ability to seriously challenge at the World Cup level. Since a very good showing in 1990, Argentina has been unable to get beyond the quarter finals, failing even to get out of the first round in 2002. They did so irrispectively of the quality of coaching that went into it. Passarella, Pekerman, Bielsa (now Chile’s coach), Basile were all excellent coaches who had earned their stripes yet failed to move forward in the tournament. The national federation was demonstrating diligence in identifying suitable candidates were not delivering.

    So why did Argentina and England founder? TALENT! Despite having the best players in their midfield and forward lines, the quality of their defence was just poor. You cannot win trying to hide poor players.

    Both Argentina and England preferred to believe that altitude was the reason for Argentina’s poor qualification run this year, while discipline was the problem with England in past world cups.

    Why did Italy founder? TALENT – they just had a bunch of good workmanlike, ordinary players, but none exceptional. Some will say they were many of the same players as in 2006 (they will forget that they were missing Pirlo, Totti, Del Piero, Buffon to name a few). Talent is also a systemic and governance issue (you nurture it, you raise, it, you develop it), but it’s also luck and sports specific.

    Why should we thank Maradona? Because he has heart and he wears it on his sleeve. He is no doubt responsible for some of the problems and has made questionable decisions, or has very questionable habits. But he has heart and pride. He cares about the sport, he cares about Argentina. That was refreshing and nice.

  6. Viviana Castro Gache Says:
    July 6th, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Excellent reply, Giulio de Tommaso. I loved what you wrote!

    Viviana Castro Gache (Buenos Aires)

  7. Kaufmann Says:
    July 6th, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Giulio —

    Your informative and thoughtful comment and opinion is much appreciated, and there is much that I agree with. A previous blog entry I posted over 10 days ago (here) made the more general link between governance and World Cup performance, where I discussed the serious failings of many countries, such as Italy, France, and also a number of African countries (except for Ghana and South Africa, with better governance). And I also mentioned these clear cases in this current entry, but the focus this time is more on Argentina, prompted by the Letter of Apology to Maradona from the NYT.

    Yes, Maradona was probably the greatest (or one of two greatest) players of the century, and he passionately cares about the sport and Argentina. But that does not make him an effective manager/coach (let alone a role model for the youth nowadays). He should have had a different role. In spite of its own great national soccer past, and its brilliant talent in the recent past and today, Argentina has not been successful in world competition over the past two decades.

    Maradona alone cannot be blamed, it goes deeper into institutions, including how the coach is selected and the national team run, etc. But Maradona’s track record with the national team was already mediocre prior to the World Cup; Argentina came very close to not qualifying to go to South Africa. I am respectful and appreciative, however, that this is such a passionate issue for many in Argentina, where there are very strong views on both sides.

    And below an excerpt for an analysis and quotes from experts in Argentina today (in Spanish):
    “Según el deportivo Olé, un 60% de los argentinos considera que el ciclo de Maradona está cumplido. Es que, según coinciden los expertos, las fallas que mostró la escuadra albiceleste en suelo sudafricano se podrían haber saldado desde la conducción técnica para la que, con los resultados a la vista, el “Pelusa” no sería el más dotado.”
    (BBC). Y Horacio Pagani en el diario Clarín: “Argentina está entre las potencias futboleras desde siempre y tiene virtudes para lograr un título, pero tenemos falla de estructura y esto no es sólo en el fútbol sino en todos los ámbitos de la sociedad.”

  8. five a side soccer leagues Says:
    July 10th, 2010 at 12:56 am

    Giulio de Tommaso, you are awesome in your comment. Maradona and Messi the two giant of world soccer in two generation.

  9. netball leagues Says:
    July 10th, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Argentina has the pool of best player and this time under the rocking legend Diego, they have played the game beautifully in the world cup but their spped mattered most in quarterfinal match, and it got the debacle.

  10. Kaufmann Says:
    July 10th, 2010 at 8:38 am

    Andres Oppenheimer, the well known Argentinian journalist and commentator on Latin America, weighs into this debate in his latest column, entitled Maradona Syndrome, in the Miami Herald and syndicates, here.

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