Just two weeks ago Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata were in a seemingly endless tailspin, without a coach or a win in this year’s Superliga and all but resigned to playing in the second tier next season. But spirits around La Plata have experienced a remarkable turnaround, thanks to the arrival of one of football’s most remarkable – and biggest – personalities.
What apparently started as a light-hearted piece of ‘fake news’ spread by a Gimnasia fan page became reality last Sunday, thanks to a frenzied presentation in front of a packed El Bosque stadium.
Diego Maradona sped out onto the Lobo pitch in a golf cart with the entire nation watching, ready to take on a new challenge after electrifying Mexico in his ultimately failed quest to send Dorados up to the Liga MX. There were cheers, tears and a whole truckload of other emotions combined, demonstrating once more just what the hero of the Albiceleste’s 1986 World Cup means to those who both love and loathe this most charismatic and divisive of figures.
“I am no wizard, we are going to have to work,” the man himself warned the Gimnasia faithful in a speech that saw Diego at his mercurial, cryptic, near-incomprehensible best. “We have to be intelligent to win games, and we will win them.
“This team is going to be an example. Have no doubt that on Sunday we will put our lives on the line. We don’t play here with machine guns or revolvers, here we will cross into the box and the next player will push the ball in so we all celebrate.”
The real challenge begins tomorrow under daunting circumstances. Gimnasia welcome none other than reigning Superliga champions Racing Club to El Bosque (curiously enough, one of the two teams Maradona has previously coached at Argentine club level, in a short, chaotic spell at the start of 1995 during his suspension for doping violation at the 1994 World Cup). At the start of this weekend El Lobo lay stranded, 11 points from safety in the relegation average points table, a margin that looks almost impossible to overturn, with just 18 matches left in this stunted league season. Wins are vital, and will be no mean feat for a side that has picked up one point and scored a measly two goals in its five games to date.
But no matter what happens on the pitch, the Diego effect has made itself felt. Four-thousand people have signed up as new Gimnasia members in the week that the legend has been in charge, while replica shirts sporting his iconic number 10 have been flying off the shelves in La Plata and beyond.
Gimnasia have fielded membership requests and enquiries from across the globe – including one from Kingston, Jamaica.
Maradona’s coaching credentials may still not convince everyone – although his recent record in the Middle East and Mexico is wholly respectable following that anarchic spell at the head of the Argentina national team – but perhaps no other sporting figure on earth is capable of awakening such furore by merely sitting on the bench.
Diego’s day-to-day involvement in La Plata may prove in fact to be limited. He excused himself from Gimnasia’s first training session the day after his presentation and is expected to be an infrequent visitor to practices, as he continues to battle various serious health issues which, it is said, almost caused him to turn down the job. The 58-year-old went under the knife this winter on a recurring knee issue which leaves him almost unable to walk and will soon have to undergo another operation on his shoulder.
Sebastián Méndez, Maradona’s new assistant and a veteran of clubs such as Banfield, Atlanta, Godoy Cruz and Belgrano, will take on the nuts and bolts of coaching duties, leaving Diego free to do what he does best, motivating and cajoling in the dressing room and the sidelines.
After all, as has been said no few times over the last two weeks, if Maradona cannot inspire a team in the doldrums to do the impossible and escape from relegation, who can?