Buenos Aires: Diego Maradona turns 50 on Saturday, an anniversary some feared he might never reach, and after defying death he will not let the small matter of a sacking stand in the way of his next big goal.
Argentina’s greatest player will spend his birthday far from the two things that have dominated his life – soccer and being constantly in the public eye – but they are not far from his mind.
Despite losing his job as coach of his beloved Argentina a few months ago, Maradona still dreams of returning to the helm and avenging the World Cup quarter-final defeat by Germany in June that cost him his job.
“I know I’ll return to the national team some day, it’s my destiny. I’m waiting,” said Maradona, speaking to Sky Sports in an interview broadcast on Friday.
Having once been at death’s door with a priest at his bedside and having suffered heart problems, obesity and drug addiction before defying doubters to get the Argentina job in 2008, it would be unwise to write off his chances of returning.
Carlos Bilardo, coach of the Argentina side that won the World Cup in Mexico in 1986, has played a major part in Maradona’s life but even he would not venture an opinion on his former captain’s future or chances of a comeback.
Bilardo has a part in the choice of Maradona’s successor to lead Argentina to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, though only to advise an Argentine Football Association (AFA) selection committee on the candidates.
“I propose and they choose,” Bilardo, who is the AFA director of national teams, told Reuters of the selection committee meeting he will attend on Monday.
There is no indication that Maradona is on his list, but just as he was called on before to bail out the team when they were in crisis, as a player first ahead of the 1994 World Cup and then as coach two years ago, his supporters will push his case at the first real sign of failure.
The stocky Maradona is not short of supporters, a mark of the respect he still commands on the basis of a playing career that marked him out as one of the game’s true greats.
Some are in government and Maradona was at President Cristina Fernandez’s side on Thursday as the country mourned the sudden death at 60 of her husband, former head of state Nestor Kirchner.
Former Boca Juniors and Argentina team mate and friend Claudio Caniggia said Maradona should never have lost the job in the first place.
“Obviously, there’s pain. He still hopes for a chance, but he’s well,” Caniggia told the sports daily Ole.
“I’m sure inside himself he thinks he deserves to carry on. I think he deserved to.”
Realistically, though, Maradona will have to wait some time before he can credibly be linked with the national coaching job again.
Among the main candidates for the post, Sergio Batista, Maradona’s 1986 World Cup-winning team mate, enjoys a head start as the interim coach and the backing of AFA president Julio Grondona, while Alex Sabella of Estudiantes is also in the mix.
Whoever gets the job will have to prove his capacity when Argentina host the Copa America in July. Argentina lost the final to Brazil the last two times it was played in 2004 and 2007. It was also Argentina’s last trophy way back in 1993.
A run of bad results could soon have Argentines once again overlooking Maradona’s shortcomings and calling for his return.
His drug problems and lavish lifestyle were forgiven by a public who seek a return to the glory days that he inspired -- and they are still waiting for that.