The latest video clip of Argentina training suggests Maradona is encouraging his players to have a bit of fun. This is no bad thing. In the run-up to the 2002 World Cup, I spent several days at Argentina’s training camp in Fukushima. The Albicelestes were then coaches by the mad genius Marcelo Bielsa, who took soccer very seriously indeed: there was no room for fun on his training pitch. I remember a mock fight that broke out between shaven-headed Juan Sebastian Veron and the long-haired Juan Pablo Sorin. After being at the receiving end of a crunching tackle by Sorin, Veron claimed the defender had committed both a foul and a robbery… of Veron’s hair. The players all laughed, but Bielsa wasn’t amused. He ordered Veron and Sorin off the pitch, screaming that if they couldn’t be serious, they didn’t deserve to be on his team. Veron shrugged it off, knowing the manager couldn’t possibly follow through with the threat, but Sorin looked genuinely worried. Both men left the field, leaving the remaining players in a sour mood.
That anecdote didn’t make it into my story back then, but I did note the coach’s intense pitchside manner: “Bielsa paced along the sideline, glaring at the carefully manicured grass like some demented botanist.”
As it turned out, 2002 was a disaster for Argentina. There were many reasons for this: key players didn’t perform, some crucial refereeing decisions went the wrong way. But I can’t help thinking that the coach didn’t help matters by stamping out any fun on the training field.