Diego Maradona is in Tblisi, Georgia, this week preparing for a game of Showbol. But he surely has his ears glued to the telephone, waiting to hear what becomes of Argentina's latest coaching drama.
Arguably the greatest player to have ever graced a soccer field, Maradona, surprisingly, is one of the candidates to replace Alfio Basile as the head coach of the Argentine national team. AFA president Julio Grondona will announce his final verdict on Monday.
Maradona is the flashiest name, of course. But he is also the only candidate who lacks top-level coaching experience. The other names are Miguel Ángel Russo, Sergio Batista and Carlos Bianchi -- three coaches with long histories of experience, all of whom have the credentials to lead Argentina to the World Cup and beyond.
The safe choice is probably Russo, who will likely lead Argentine powerhouse San Lorenzo to the Apertura Championship this season. But in terms of excitement and overall public opinion, Maradona gets my vote.
No matter how controversial it may seem, Maradona has certain qualities that could transform Argentina into a firm title candidate for the 2010 World Cup. Maradona has given Argentine soccer so much over the years, and a coaching role could be the best way to repay him for all his achievements.
But there are many obstacles standing in his way. Since his retirement in 1997, El Diez had been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He was constantly in trouble with the law, and his drug and alcohol addiction reached such an extreme that just a few years ago, he was feared to be on his deathbed. After spending several months at rehab clinics, where he received intensive counseling to cure his addiction and excessive weight gain, Maradona eventually cleaned up his act.
With his drug problems behind him, Maradona is prepared to begin a new chapter in his life. He may be inexperienced in a coaching role, having failed in brief stints with Argentine teams Deportivo Mandiyú and Racing Club during the mid-90s. But his track record speaks for itself.
Maradona played a starring role for Argentina as it claimed the 1986 World Cup and, in that same tournament, he scored arguably the two most famous goals in World Cup history: the "Goal of the Century" and the "Hand of God" in the 2-1 quarterfinal victory over England.
Maradona is a proven winner on the international stage. And although he remains a legend in his own right still today, how realistic are his chances of being selected? According to Noray Nakis, a senior director of the Argentine national team, they are very good. On Tuesday, he admitted that Maradona is a firm candidate to fill Argentina's vacant coaching position.
"Maradona has the greatest possibilities of being the coach of the national team," Nakis said. "In the dressing room, he motivates the players and he finds himself in a great personal moment."
If Nakis is right, and Maradona does become the coach of Los Albicelestes, it could be one of the most unconventional moves in the entire history of Argentine soccer. Argentina has traditionally opted for coaches with many years of experience, including Basile, who was hired again in '06 after leading Boca Juniors to four titles in one year. He was also the last coach to have achieved success with the national team, having guided Argentina to back-to-back Copa América titles in 1991 and '93 during his first spell in charge.
The appointment of Maradona, however, would set a new trend. And although it would indeed be extremely risky, it could well be the change Argentina needs. Maradona, who turns 48 on Oct. 30, has the potential to revolutionize Argentine soccer. What gives him the edge over his competition is that he continues to be as popular as ever in his country and is an international soccer icon. If he were to become Argentina's next coach, not only would he get undivided support from the general public, but he would also be presented with a glorious opportunity to prove himself in a position where many have failed in the past.
"We have to make sure the will to succeed returns, [for the players] to feel the shirt," Maradona told Radio Del Plata on Tuesday. "Maybe this has been forgotten, but it is fundamental to feel it when the time comes to enter the field. Overseas [in Europe], they have excellent careers, but if they play badly one Sunday, they can make up for this the next week. Here, on the contrary, they must play their hearts out in two [World Cup qualifying] matches. But it is necessary to change some internal aspects which will improve by just talking."
Regardless of who gets the job, Argentina's main objective will be the World Cup. The team has enough quality players to be among the title candidates, but it needs a coach capable of injecting character into the side.
With the help of an experienced assistant, Maradona could possibly steer them in the right direction. Not only is he a renowned motivator (having played a key role in the dressing room as Argentina won the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics), but the '86 World Cup winner contains a strong winning mentality. If he manages to incorporate this into the squad, even if he takes a secondary role, it could prove vital as Argentina looks to return to former glory.
"I will fight to become the national-team coach until the last minute" Maradona insisted. "The opportunities are there, my chances are still intact. I will have to put together my coaching team to compete with the other candidates. I'm fully devoted to the cause, and if necessary I will get to work at 8 in the morning."
Maradona is clearly motivated to take on the role, and this could benefit the national team in certain aspects. What plays in his favor are the good relationships he has with Argentina's top players, such as Sergio Agüero (his son-in-law), Lionel Messi, Carlos Tévez and Juan Román Riquelme.
In the past, coaches such as Basile, José Pekerman and Marcelo Bielsa found great difficulty in dealing with the number of egos in the Argentina dressing room, and that often affected the team's ability to cope in the biggest games. Maradona might be the right guy to get the most out of his players.
Is it time for El Diego to finally assume the responsibility? Argentina is in serious need of a coach capable of turning around its fortune. Although a risky appointment of Maradona might not be an instant success, it could have its rewards in the long run. If Maradona gets the call on Monday, it would be the greatest birthday present he could possibly imagine.