Sunday, March 22, 2020

Robson and Maradona

PASSING TIME WITH TWO ICONS OF THE 1980s

Well, what strange days we are living in.

With football globally on hold, what on earth are us addicts to do with our fixation? One thing we can do is look back because looking forward amid a global pandemic is a fool's errand.

Who knows if or when the domestic seasons or international club competitions will resume? Euro 2020 and the Copa America 2020 have already bitten the dust for the year.

This week, along with nature walks and music, I have found reading to be one of the best antidotes to the 24/7 viral news, reports which only seems to get worse every day, unless you are living in Asia, where the grim reaper seems to be getting tired.

You can still consume football. There are many great soccer books out there and a few films to boot. This week I watched 'Bobby Robson - More than a Manager' (2018) and 'Diego Maradona' (2019).

The former was a slick production that did its subject justice, supplying a worthy summary of Robson's managerial career and character.


The documentary covered all his coaching triumphs from the UEFA Cup with Ipswich, through back-to-back titles with PSV and Porto to the Copa del Rey and Cup Winners Cup with Barcelona.

There was unflinching detail on his many clashes with cancer - five wins before a final defeat, as well as the appalling hostility one of the nicest men in football met from the press, some fans and directors, especially at the madhouse of the Camp Nou for a season.

Robson was never widely regarded or respected in England despite his serial achievements in several countries, which was probably due to his quaint personality. His old-fashioned warmth and decency shines through in the film, as if he was a man frozen in a 1950's movie.

Even when Barcelona sacked him after a season because they had already promised the job to Louis Van Gaal, they felt compelled to offer him a job as ambassador, such was his likeability.

An alleged desire to see the good in anybody may have cost him dear in his final job when his Newcastle squad were said to have run amok away from the club and Robson was sacked as a result, a final blow which hurt him deeply.

But interestingly, Gary Lineker adds that Robson had a tough side as well, which was not elaborated on. Paul Gascoigne also appears, fragile and washed-up, but full of love for his former mentor.

Robson lives on in today's football in the DNA of his pupils - his former translator Jose Mourinho and player Pep Guardiola, who are featured heavily.

For a most British man to have succeeded in Portugal, Spain and Holland was as atypical then as now, but was more common in the fifties, and he remains the closest to have come to matching England's 1966 World Cup success.

Lineker called him "the greatest English manager." There are two statues of him in his home country - one in Ipswich and the other in his native Newcastle, if there is anyone in any doubt.

In Mexico City in 1986 Robson crossed swords with a mercurial Argentinian who invoked the deity in his first goal to eliminate England from the World Cup quarter-final.

Robson was understandably furious afterwards, but in later interviews insisted Maradona was not to blame because "players will try things" and that the inept match officials alone were culpable for  the notorious 'Mano de Dios' goal.

'Diego Maradona' the movie was a bit of a disappointment. Almost two and a half hours long, it was an archive in desperate need of an editor. The title was misleading as it was far from an overview of his life but rather a treasury on tape of Maradona in Naples.

We ultimately did not learn that much about the great midfielder. What the film showed was what we knew already - Maradona became a god at Napoli, was manipulated by the Camorra and slid into a life of excess, sleaze and self-destruction. The problem was this narrative was laid out repetitively.

Crucially, it fell short on analysis and until a moving conclusion, lacked emotional pull. His family's claim that there were two people at play - Diego the man and Maradona the myth, was a rare moment of insight.

John Foot, author of the excellent 'Calcio - a history of Italian football', popped up with some refreshingly illuminating context but was given only a few seconds of airtime.

There is a great documentary about arguably the greatest of players waiting to be made, probably after he dies.

In the meantime, read Jimmy Burns' 1996 biography 'Maradona: The Hand of God' for a fuller picture.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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