Maradona syndrome bad for Argentina

In Argentina, where soccer and politics are so closely intertwined, the humiliating defeat of superstar coach Diego Maradona's national team in the World Cup could be an excellent opportunity for the country to rethink its worship of individualism over teamwork. But it's not clear that it will happen.

Two weeks ago, Maradona — perhaps the best soccer player of all time before he retired in 1997, and a semi-God in his country — was hailed by most Argentines as the man who would lead the country to win the World Cup. But then came a disastrous 4-0 defeat by Germany, which eliminated Argentina in the quarterfinals.

While both Argentina and Germany are soccer super-powers, the ease of Germany's victory came as a shock to everybody. Argentina has the best current player in the world — Lionel Messi — and a lineup of forwards like few other teams. Germany, with fewer stars but a reputation for relying on experience, teamwork and careful planning, was so superior on the field that even its players were surprised by the final score.

The differences between the teams are striking. Maradona was picked as the team's coach despite having little experience in that job. His team barely qualified for the World Cup. There were widespread rumors that his appointment was influenced by merchandising considerations and by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's hope to benefit politically from his support.

Maradona supporters said he motivated his players like no one else could, because the team's players had grown up idolizing him. Not surprisingly, the cameras during the World Cup games focused more on Maradona than on any of his players.

Germany, on the other hand, was a ruthlessly effective soccer machine, with no superegos. As Stephen Glennon wrote in Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, Germany has a team with a "winning mentality" but "players largely devoid of personality." He said "those who rocked the boat were ostracized" from the German team.

But when Maradona returned to Argentina, he received a hero's welcome by up to 20,000 fans. President Fernandez de Kirchner, aware of the latest polls showing that about half of Argentines still adore Maradona despite the World Cup results, said she plans to invite the coach to the presidential palace to give him an official welcome.

The pro-government bloc in the Buenos Aires city legislature presented a bill to erect a monument to Maradona, as an "icon of Argentine popular culture." At the time of this writing, it is not clear whether he will resign as coach.

Daniel Kaufmann, a Brookings Institution governance scholar and former World Bank Institute director, wrote in his blog that "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 Germany's case, the team was better than the sum of its players. In Argentina's case, the team was worse than the sum of its stars. It was largely Maradona's fault, he added.

My opinion: Argentina should leave behind its "Maradona syndrome" of worshiping individual celebrities over teamwork and planning. While Maradona was the world's best player in his time, he has been a poor coach and a terrible role model.

As a player, Maradona is remembered by many for his illegal goal during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where he pushed the ball to the net with his hand, while faking a head shot. Maradona happily joked after the game that it had been "the hand of God."

To this day, the incident is remembered in Argentina as a prime example of many Argentines' celebration of slyness over hard work. Later, Maradona was charged with tax evasion in Italy and spent several years in and out of drug rehabilitation clinics in Europe and Cuba.

As an Argentine-born soccer fan, I would have loved to see Argentina beat Germany and go on to win the World Cup, despite Maradona. And I cheered when Spain defeated Germany.

But now, I can only wish that Argentina becomes a little bit more skeptical about charismatic leaders and a little bit more mindful that good governance means making the whole better than the sum of its parts. With its incredible pool of talent, that would help Argentina go a long way.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132; e-mail:

Share This Story