Leading Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, football legend Diego Maradona scored a goal with his arm he attributed to the "the hand of God." As it often does, karma from that controversial score against England has caught up with the ex-superstar and with Argentina's football fortunes as well.
Maradona left football under a cloud of cocaine addiction during the 1990s. He got rehab in Cuba, nearly died of a heart attack after a relapse, had bariatric surgery and made a miraculous comeback as a popular TV talk show host in Buenos Aires.
In a football-crazy nation where populist heroes like Juan Peron, Hugo Chavez and even Al Capone are fixtures of national life, Maradona, with a little help from his friends, parlayed his popularity as a TV personality into a job as coach of the national team.
Argentina faces a serious reputation management problem because, as a coach, Maradona has proven to be a world class loser. His inexperience in prime time abounded last week when his team of millionaire superstars, many of whom play in not in Argentina, but in Europe, dropped a pair of must-win World Cup qualifying matches to Brazil and Paraguay. Maradona predicting victory against Brazil in pre-game trash talk only made matters worse.
Now only the hand of God can alter the fact that Argentina is on track to miss qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. With or without Maradona, a demoralized Argentine team now needs to make it through a two-game playoff against teams from Central and North America and the Caribbean if it is to qualify for the finals next year in South Africa.
In a nation where sports and politics cooperate to form a sense of national identity, the Argentine Football Association selected Maradona, who has been out of the game for a decade, over a group of more qualified candidates. Instead of coaching successful football teams, Maradona has been successful at using his talk show bully pulpit to bash the United States, praise the actions of his pals Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and the Castro brothers in Cuba and promote Iran's rogue nuclear program.
Argentina's Peronist president, Cristina Kirchner, has had few problems with Maradona playing the nationalist card in the style of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck because it spares her from the political risks associated with energizing the more vitriolic factions of her party's base. Maradona, sporting tattoos of Fidel and Che Guevara, the Argentine doctor who joined the Cuban Revolution, resonates with radical populists in the Peronist movement because many are rowdy football fans from marginalized communities outside Buenos Aires like Moron, Nueva Chicago, and Lanus, where Diego grew up.
Maradona was no show for a scheduled meeting Monday to discuss team issues with Argentine Football Association president Julio Grondona and association general manager Carlos Bilardo, the man who coached him on the 1986 World Cup winning team. Bilardo left his position as secretary for sports in the Peronist government of Buenos Aires province and joined the federation when Maradona was named coach last year.
By boarding a plane for Italy Sunday night, Maradona may have sealed his own fate. Prior to that development, Bilardo said that "only Jesus or the Virgin Mary" could authorize Maradona's firing. A spokesperson for the Argentine Football Association has announced, however, that since Maradona is spending time at an Italian health spa, Bilardo has taken control of the team. It's not likely Argentina will be crying for Diego Maradona this time around.