In the eyes of many, Diego Maradona is the greatest player ever to have graced the game. Having acquired huge popularity the world over and cheated death a few short years ago, the 48-year-old legend is enjoying life again at the helm of his beloved Argentina.
Now a doting grandfather, Maradona sat down with FIFA.com for a typically frank chat about his battle against adversity, playing for and coaching La Albiceleste, Lionel Messi, Fidel Castro and much more. Part two of this interview, in which the legendary No10 gives his views on Pele, Brazil and his duels against A Seleçao, will be published shortly.
FIFA.com: Diego, you have been in the Argentina job for nine months now. Has it been a bit like becoming a father?
Diego Maradona: A bit, yes. I've only had the boys together for a month and a half in all that time, so I really don't get much chance to work and spend time with them. It was great when I came into the job but now I have to start getting some things through to those 25 little heads, such as what they need to do on and off the pitch. I've been through all that and that's why I'm giving the squad the benefit of my experience.
Are you enjoying it?
It's hard. I enjoyed things more when I was playing but I'm making sure I fulfil my responsibilities. Everybody knows I've been through some difficult times but I managed to pull myself together, and here I am in charge of the Argentina team. It's a dream come true.
Is it tougher than you expected?
It's tough for the reasons I've just mentioned. You're always on the phone, trying to find out how the players are. Every day I meet with the coaching staff to find out how (Lionel) Messi, (Sergio) Aguero, Maxi Rodriguez and everyone have been doing in training, to see if Jonas Gutierrez has been playing. It's more about logistics than actually watching them, but that's just the way things are. I know for sure that the Brazil game will be the key to qualification. Then we're off to Paraguay, where we've also got a great chance of winning. God willing, I'll have them all together for 20 days before the World Cup and that's when we'll lay the ground work to give ourselves the best possible chance of becoming world champions.
Let's look back at your time in charge. How many interviews have you given since taking over?
A lot. But I try not to go on too many programmes. A coach has to know when to be seen. Just because I'm Maradona and the national coach doesn't mean I have to be everywhere and please everyone. The players are the real stars. They're the ones who should come out and do the talking.
Are there any particular questions you get tired of hearing?
When are we going to see Maradona's influence on the team? It's totally unfair to expect to see the Maradona style when I only get the guys together two days before each game. You have to make the most of what you have, and do and undo things in three days flat. The players travel a long way and they need time to relax and stretch their legs. You can't do much work with them before a game and I can't give them double training sessions. They'd be destroyed if I did that. I just try to get things through to them bit by bit and I see myself as more of a coach than a technical director.
What about the things you have not been asked but which are important to you?
The togetherness of the team. We had a terrible result in Bolivia and they stuck together. Whenever you lose like that there are always a few players who blame each other, but the opposite happened here. We got even stronger as a team, we had a meeting on the plane and took heart from that. We played a great game in Ecuador and should have been two goals up in the first half. We let that chance slip and I hope we don't do the same against Brazil.
Is it true you wake up at night with ideas in your head and have to write them down?
Yes, it is. Free-kicks, corner kicks, etc. For example, I want the team to press a lot more up front, to compress the space between defence, midfield and attack. And when we lose the ball we need to be on top of the other team straightaway. There's one thing Argentina need to make the most of and that's the fact we're much better in possession than anyone. Maybe Brazil have got what we have, but Italy and Germany don't. Perhaps Spain have had it lately too, especially with Xavi, who can lose a couple of guys and put (David) Villa or (Fernando) Torres though. There aren't many more though. If we press hard, there's no escape for opposing sides.
Have you been watching a lot of football?
All the time.
Who have you seen recently? Has anyone surprised you?
No one's surprised me really. Teams are the way they are. Milan are struggling, Inter have kept it together, Madrid are going to change a lot with Kaka. He's going to give them an extra dimension, though I don't understand why (Fernando) Gago's not been playing. They should play him but he's still one of my first-choice players all the same. I've also seen my friend Ciro Ferrara's Juventus side. They're doing well, playing a typically Italian game: really tight catenaccio at the back, then they give it to (Alessandro) Del Piero and he spreads it about. As for our guys, (Diego) Milito looks to me to be in great form and El Kun (Sergio Aguero) too.
I haven't seen him lately. I tried to call him but it's easier talking to Obama than Lio (laughs). I've heard he's having a good pre-season and that's great to know.
Are there any players who have surprised you recently?
Felipe Melo has been a great find for Brazil and Hulk of Porto has also made a big impact. I'm intrigued by Ronaldinho too. He's looking fit again but he's lost that explosive power he had. I'd love to see him do his feints again and get away from people. I hope he gets that back, but only after he plays us of course.
Let's talk about Maradona the man now. What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you?
The worst has already happened (pauses). I was at the bottom of the sea and my daughters pulled me out. I can get up every day now and that's an achievement when you consider that I used to go three whole days either awake or asleep. Seeing my grandson is like touching the sky. Everything else pales in comparison. It's like a penalty, a free-kick. Nothing compares to that.
And the best?
The best was reacting to it, drawing on adversity to reinvent myself as a person. I'm not saying I want to defeat adversity but when I come up against a situation, I fight as hard as I can to overcome it. I'm still in one piece today and I'm ready for whatever life has to throw at me.
You must have some amazing stories to tell. What is the most incredible situation you have found yourself in?
The craziest thing was showing Fidel Castro how I took penalties. I said to him, ‘I look at the goalkeeper. If I commit before the keeper, he saves it. If the keeper commits before me, I'll just put it on the other side.' Fidel was moving all the chairs around and he said, ‘Come on, take a penalty against me. Show me.' They brought a ball and I said, ‘This is the goal, right? You stand there, in the middle.' Just imagine. Me taking a penalty against Fidel Castro? It's crazy!
He just stood there and I scored. He kept on asking me questions after that; where I put my foot and things like that. ‘It just happens, maestro,' I told him. He came back and said it was easy, that it was just a matter of watching the keeper and that one day we'd practise penalties on a proper pitch. There he was, the guy, a real baseball fan and he picked it up straightaway. Just like that. After that we just sat there for hours talking about politics. Six or seven hours easily. I killed myself laughing with him. He's a living legend and there's no one in the world with his charisma. No one, not even the Pope!
The World Cup must be a dream for you.
Yes, and meeting Mandela too. I saw the other day that he's turned 91. I always wanted to meet him but never could because something always came up here. I hope I can some time.
Maybe at the draw in December?
Possibly, but maybe we'll go earlier to see where we'll be staying. I'd love to.
Is the FIFA World Cup™ an obsession?
The World Cup wouldn't be the same without Argentina. It would be colourless.
You sound very sure about qualifying.
I'm absolutely sure. If I weren't, I wouldn't be talking to you now.
Do you remember the first time you saw the Trophy?
Of course. I saw it in some photos. When we beat Germany I was able to touch it and kiss it (pauses). We'd waited all those days at the training camp, thought about it so much, and there I was with my hands on it. It makes you so proud. It's the most beautiful thing. I tell the players that 30 days of sacrifice just to kiss that cup is nothing in a man's life. It's like touching the sky.
You have already said you know what it takes to win it.
I won it once and finished runner-up too. I was a runner-up in Rome against all expectations. Everyone said Brazil would beat us and we knocked them out. Everyone said Italy would beat us and we knocked them out too and got to the final. I always say you need luck in the World Cup, but you need to give luck a helping hand too. We had a lot of injuries in 1990 but my players know very well how to look after themselves.
It's 30 intense days. You're fully focused, thinking about nothing but the World Cup. And that's what I'm aiming for. I've been at World Cups, I've played in two finals and I know how to get there, how to handle the group, how to coach them. I know what to say to them. I know what I'm talking about. I didn't come eighth or ninth and it didn't happen to me just like that. I know something about all this.
According to your team-mates in 1986 you would not let go of the trophy after the Final.
That's right. I didn't let go of it much. We couldn't do a lap of honour at the Azteca. We tried but we couldn't. When we got back to America's training centre, where we were staying, I took the cup down to the ground and we did the lap of honour there, just on our own with our families by the side of the pitch.
You will be holding on to it if you win in 2010 as well I suppose?
No. Masche (Javier Mascherano) will have that honour. And he won't want to let go either. Mark my words. He'll be doing the same thing.