Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Maradona! Butcher! Marguerite Duras!

So, Diego Maradona is the new Argentina manager, then. And the first game of his tenure is a friendly away to Scotland at Hampden.

Even into the 1980s, when Maradona was at his freewheeling best, this would still have been a Grade 'A' humdinger of a fixture. At that point, Argentina, with a Michel Platini-inspired France, had taken on the mantle of the best footballing side in the world from the similarly improvisatory Brazil team of 1982. And the Scots? Well, Scotland have historically been the flair side of the British Isles, with a record of maverick playmakers, firebrand strikers and gifted schemers stretching from Hughie Gallacher and Alex James to Charlie Nicholas and Davie Cooper. Between those points, of course, one finds players like Jim Baxter, Kenny Dalglish and Jimmy Johnstone, all of whom could categorically be said to be players who, like Maradona, operated within the true spirit of the game.

'Ah,' I hear you say. 'But Maradona didn't play within the spirit of the game. His second most famous goal was....a handball!!'

That handball is at the root of the current fuss. Terry Butcher, the technically-limited but appealingly (if you're into that kind of thing) 'man at Harfleur' centre-half who was on the receiving end of Maradona's single-handed demolition job in that 1986 game, is now Scotland's assistant coach, and he's planning to 'snub' the Argentinian coach at Hampden tonight. The fact that the incident in question happened 22 years ago notwithstanding, I'm more than a little uncomfortable that Butcher and the media seem prepared to turn Scotland's meeting with Maradona into a revisiting of an issue that specifically affected England: indeed, I'm sure that there were more than one or two 'dancing in the streets of Raith' the night the English were punched out of the World Cup. It's as if Scotland are considered a side-show to what always seems to be the main event, namely the circus of inanity that is the England football team and it's ongoing failure to succeed at international tournaments. I would have thought, even hoped, that Scotland wouldn't be too enamoured with Butcher's annexing of their fixture for a restaging of a vendetta which is either personal or Anglo-Argentine, but of little importance for those north of the border.

Revisiting a notoriously weird interview between the theologically-questioning French novelist Marguerite Duras and Platini - the key extract of which is here - the Nietzscheans among us might see Maradona as drifting into those hinterlands of the 'démoniaque et divin' (or, the handball and the dribble) which are the playgrounds of the truly free. Others, and I'm probably one of them, are simply prepared to forgive Diego his moment of supreme naughtiness. Let's face it, if Theo Walcott did that to win a World Cup Quarter Final, the English would see it more as Dennis the Menace mischief than a piece of international incident-prompting blackguardery.

Many of Scotland's greatest players were dogged by similar problems of temperament and intemperance which were to prove the end of Maradona's career. Unlike Argentina, Scotland's reserve of footballing mavericks has more or less dried up: the latest archetypically Caledonian playmaker, Aiden McGeady, has opted to play for the Republic of Ireland rather than the country of his birth. In terms of its population, Scotland was punching above its weight (if you'll pardon the pun) in terms of the quality of player it was producing up until the 1980s. Butcher's attitude seems to me to represent the trajectories of football on either side of the border since that period: the English falling back on their well-prepared hard luck stories, and the Scots having ceased to be a major story in their own right. In an ideal world, we'd see the return of evenly-matched home internationals, a Scottish footballer as talented as Dennis Law or Baxter (even an Archie Gemmell or Pat Nevin would do!), and English players with the composed magnanimity of Bobby Moore or Gordon Banks. Unfortunately, I can't see that state of affairs coming about any time soon.


And, while still on the football theme, isn't it good to know that Arsenal fans are still as myopic as ever? See the first question in this week's update of the Guardian's brilliant footie triv series 'The Knowledge': as Ernesto has reported, young Carlos Vela is a very special talent indeed, but fourteen (!) career goals probably doesn't make him the 'most prolific teenage striker ever'!

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