Just hours shy of his 59th birthday, Diego Maradona had the best seat in the house as his Gimnasia side picked up a second consecutive victory on Tuesday.
In this case, quite literally so. In tribute to the man whose brief spell at Newell’s Old Boys in 1993 left more impact than the scarce amount of games played in their shirt would suggest, the Lepra all but rolled out the carpet to give Diego a welcome perhaps never seen before for the coach of a visiting opponent.
Pride of place was given to a lavish leather ‘throne’, situated next to the Gimnasia bench to ensure that Maradona would enjoy supreme comfort throughout the 90 minutes at the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa.
“Look at the chair they gave him, it looks like something out of The Godfather,” one Newell’s fan was heard to exclaim following the great man’s introduction to the crowd.
Indeed, the manner in which Sebastián Méndez sidled up to the coach during Gimnasia’s win to consult tactical matters could not help but bring to mind consigliere Tom Hagen seeking advice from Marlon Brando’s seminal Vito Corleone.
More importantly, the change of furniture seemed to work wonders. Having scored just eight in their previous 10 Superliga outings Gimnasia ran riot in a 4-0 victory over the beleaguered hosts, keeping alive those tenuous hopes of beating the drop that appeared impossible when Maradona took over amid such fanfare just a few short months ago.
Unsurprisingly, the man sitting on the home bench – with no throne in sight – was not so amused.
“I’ll probably earn a few enemies with this,” began seething Newell’s coach Frank Kudelka, “we lacked intensity at the start but that was our fault, not the party’s. Maybe the party should have taken place at another time. We lost 30 minutes. It is not an excuse, we did not play well at all.”
Kudelka’s rage is understandable. Newell’s themselves are in the midst of their own bitter relegation battle that leaves little room for sentimentality. The wily former Talleres and Unión trainer has moved mountains to inspire a side that looked rudderless in the first half of 2019, winning five and losing just one of their first nine games this season to race up the table and gain breathing space down below. But the situation is definitely not comfortable enough to gift points at home against a direct relegation rival, whoever may coach them.
Still, it is hard to ignore the Maradona effect, as the little legend continues to cast his unique spell across the Superliga with every game Gimnasia play.
Love him or loathe him, and no matter what you may think of him as a person, Maradona’s magnetic personality and its effect on fans across Argentina and the entire world is almost impossible to imagine in another football figure. His birthday inspires messages from well-wishers that number among them heads of state; his very presence at a Superliga game sees players and coaches alike from the rival team queueing up to shake his hand and embrace him.
Gimnasia were a moribund
club prior to his arrival, all but
consigned to the Nacional –
now, after just a handful of games, the La Plata side can still
dream of a great escape marshalled by their eccentric little
trainer. As celebrations continue for his 59 years on this planet and his every move continues to make headlines, Maradona seems set to keep enchanting and enraging us in equal
measure for some time yet.