Jim White

Return of the little big man

Jim White

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Diego Maradona has had something of a hero's reception on his arrival in Glasgow ahead of Argentina's friendly with Scotland on Wednesday night. Fans north of the border still relish his contribution to England's discomfort back in 1986, when he slapped the ball in the net with his hand during the World Cup quarter final.

With a nice cheek he was asked to put the Hand of God (as he once referred to it) to work on hundreds of programmes, shirts and Scotland flags. All a bit of fun. Though the fact is, his arrival in their midst would have been enough to send Scottish football enthusiasts to their autograph books even if he had got his head to the ball instead of his hand on that occasion, even if he had never knocked England off their stride. And rightly so. In Scotland, they relish a bit of skill and would want to welcome the greatest exponent ever to play the game.

Oddly, these days the giant of the game appears physically to have shrunk. When he turned up at Manchester United's training ground last week to check on the fitness of Carlos Tevez, he just about reached Wayne Rooney's chin in the photo they had taken together. So small is he even Tevez towered over him. And Tevez would have difficulty towering over a smurf. But his diminutive stature cannot disguise the scale of his influence.

If you want to know how good he was, ask yourself this question: how effective have Argentina and Napoli been without him? With him in the side, Argentina won one World Cup and reached the final of another. Without him, they perennially flatter only to deceive. With him in the side Napoli won Serie A. Since he left to spend more time with his dealer, they have spent two decades barely registering on the wider consciousness. No one has come as close as Diego did to defining the one-man team. Skilled, spirited, brave and quick, he was simply immense, winning for his teams games, tournaments and trophies they had no right even to contemplate winning. With a ball at his feet he was a master. And he wasn't bad when it fell to hand, either.

Sadly I never had the privilege of seeing him play in the flesh. The only time I have ever seen him in his diminutive whole was at the last World Cup, at the game between Argentina and Germany, when he accepted the role as unofficial cheerleader for his countrymen. He took his duties seriously. He whipped off his replica team shirt and waved it above his head, conducting the massed ranks of Argentina supporters in lengthy and sustained chanting. And this was while sitting in the VIP section.

It was for this reason - not to mention his drug abuse, his wild behaviour, his regular trips into rehab, his dicing with death, his hugely popular and irreverent television show back home in Buenos Aires that made an editorial point of knocking the Argentine Football Association - that I never expected to see him being embraced by the establishment and becoming Argentina's national coach. What a selection. Short of Paul Gascoigne being made England boss and Eric Cantona taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson in the Old Trafford dug out, you cannot think of a less likely piece of recruitment. Maradona has no coaching experience, no relevant managerial track record, no evident empathy with the modern game. But Argentina then are in trouble, languishing in the South American World Cup qualifying table, their clubs bankrupt and bickering.

The appointment of Diego seems to be a last ditch attempt to wrestle the warring egos of the national squad into something resembling a coherent force. After all, if there is one person most Argentine players revere even more than themselves, it is Diego. And while some say he will be an unmitigated disaster, while his tactical nous is not quite as well honed as that of Rafa Benitez, while his man management skill is not quite up there with Fabio Capello, while his knowledge of the international game is not quite in the same class as Giovanni Trappatoni, his astonishing presence might just provide the spark of inspiration to make a difference. Either way it is going to be fun to find out.

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