Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Strategy of Hugs

Any follower of English football would be touched by the site of Carlos Tevez beaming with pride at Maradona after his second goal against Mexico. Tevez’s history with management is complicated and genuinely sad- manipulated, used, bought and sold, discarded- and look at that! Maradona figured it out. All Carlitos really needed was to be told he was doing a good job. Tevez has come alive under Maradona’s Papa Smurf Brand of Inspirational Methodology- he’s having a cracking tournament and reminding every team Argentina meets how unwise it is to undervalue him. 
And yet- I’m surprised by the unilateral endorsement of Maradona’s displays of affection. I acknowledge their charm. All that boisterous male cuddling and hair tousling would thaw even the coldest heart (um, mine). For better or worse, Maradona has staged the most sustained and authentic-ish show of male affection in recent history. That’s worth something. Think what fun it would be to see them play the Dutch, a team whose peculiar icy repressions and unwilling communications isolate them on and off the pitch. I can already see Van Persie looking to the sidelines longingly at the prospect of a big bear hug and a pat on the back. 

And yet- I find something grotesque in Maradona’s hugging. He’s like an out-of-control stage mother determined to assert himself on his child’s every achievement. You can’t tell me that those hugs are somehow accidental. Or should I say- without intention. This is calculated embracing. I have a pet theory that I’ll share. It’s shameless pop psychology, and I usually try to keep my pop psychology at least somewhat shamed, but if Diego doesn't concern himself with such things, why should I? I think Maradona is terrified of Messi’s potential to eclipse him and thus determined to imprint himself on every moment of Messi’s success. It's sabotage by embrace. Perhaps Maradona even asked Messi to be more of a playmaker to keep him from scoring goals and make him seem like a disappointment to less experienced football viewers. It's true, Argentina lacks a playmaker and has a giant gaping hole in their midfield. But for arguments sake- there it is. Coldest heart apparently unmoved after all. 
Maradona does shows an admirable trust in his players with Tevez and Higuain on either side, and Messi free to go where he pleases (though still doing a lot more link-up work than he’s used to). There doesn’t seem to be a drawback- they are playing joyous, marauding football- but they haven’t really been pushed at all. How will Maradona deal if it gets tense- when they aren’t the biggest personalities on the ball? When they meet the more organized junior marauders of Germany? Despite Argentina’s strengths, one would imagine them the more reactive tactical side in this match-up; is Maradona prepared if he needs to implement a major tactical shift? Do Hugs count as Set Pieces? Perhaps they can go to Penalty Hugs. And what will happen when Hugs aren’t enough?

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