Maradona, what a leader says and the separation between formal and informal leadership

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Pablo Edronkin

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After a bizarre press conference once Argentina won over Uruguay in a decisive match for the South Africa Football World Cup 2010, Diego Armando Maradona, now coach of the Argentine team, spat on any journalist who dares to make critics to his person or leadership abilities. What does this represent from a leadership perspective?

It was an uncommon press conference; the present coach of the team that became a football world champion and Olympic medal in every single category that exists in that sport - something that not even the Brazilian team has been so far unable to achieve - appeared nervous and exhausted allegedly by the furious celebration that followed the meagre classification for the next world cup event, something that for Argentina was always a stroll in the park but under his coaching became a serious concern after a series of disastrous results. But what should have been a moment of elation for Argentine fans, FIFA and advertising sponsors as well due to the enormous losses that such a fall could entail in financial terms, became a renewed problem. A few hours afterwards, Argentine fans began lacerating their coach with blog and forum posts, and FIFA authorities began speaking of sanctions.

On the contrary, several polls made in Argentina before the match against Uruguay showed surprising results: More than half of those who answered seriously doubted that the Argentine team would go to South Africa, and most of them agreed that such a fate was fitting and well-deserved. In the hours before the match, as the Argentine team arrived in Montevideo, fans in the other side of the border showed indifference towards their team. Uruguayans were elated and very confident; in the end that proved too much, and they also had to pay for their overconfidence.

Argentina won playing badly; Uruguay also played with mediocrity in mind. So, in that context, after an almost-incidental victory Mr. Maradona shot against journalists and critics, implying that he was angry against the media and not the people, but it seems that the public understood his words differently, according to what could be witnessed in all sorts of sports-related blogs and forums in Argentina and everywhere. Even members of the team spoke openly about the need for revamping and radical changes. Maradona's words found no happy public.

The results of his management process speak eloquently: Under his guise the team fell from the first to the last ranks in the classification table. Few goals were made but many were received. Lot's of fans called for his resignation before the last game but the most peculiar aspect of the whole issue is that nobody in Argentina celebrated the result of the match against Uruguay, something that usually sedates such family disputes for a while.

There were almost no Argentine spectators in the Centenario stadium in Montevideo; events such as a match between Argentina and Uruguay usually draw a far bigger audience, especially considering that Montevideo is 25 minutes away from Buenos Aires by plane or a few hours away by ferry; there are hydrofoils, roads and buses to make the crossing as well on an hourly basis, and many Argentineans and Uruguayans live on both sides of the border. Even matches overseas draw bigger Argentinean audiences, so what happened?

Maradona left the Uruguayan stadium booed by the Uruguayan public; that could be understandable to some extent, but a few days before, he left River Plate stadium in Buenos Aires in the same way, booed by Argentinean spectators after another mediocre match in which his team won at the last minute against Peru. In that occasion, the team coach and other team members ostensibly celebrated in separated groups.

These are clear symptoms of a crumbling leadership, but why? Consider that it is uncommon or rather unheard-of that the people of a country very well developed in the field of football begins to reject so blatantly such a personality. Indeed, the first reason is to be found on the bad performance of Maradona as a coach, but the Argentine team already had some lows in the past and nothing like this has ever happened. The problem that is becoming evident is much deeper than that and its reasons should be looked upon within the dynamics of the society itself.

A lot of people see Maradona as a symbol, but not as the superb athlete that he was; instead, they see him as a loser, as someone in decay. Maradona has always been the same with all his good and bad things; he did not learn his foul vocabulary yesterday, but during his childhood in a very poor neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, but people tolerated more mistakes made by him in the past. Now, as Argentines are suffering the attitudes of their rather authoritarian government that behaves in a way much like Diego Maradona does against journalists, such manners don't deserve applause anymore. This is not a minor thing because the public is associating Maradona with their opinions about their government which, at this point, are very bad: The governing party suffered a defeat in recent legislative elections; the number of their seats in congress has been cut in half, but due to the rotation schedule stated by the constitution, this is less evident now than the 76% votes against the government, meaning that in the future, the ruling party will lose even more seats.

However, politicians and especially the president are acting in a way quite similar to Maradona by ignoring their critics, and even insulting them publicly. Thus, a lot of people began thinking that Maradona is not only a supporter of the governing party but actually someone at its service for demagogic purposes.

What Maradona said and he way in which he said it should be classified as a threat to journalists, contempt for freedom of expression and thus, plain and simple fascism, but it is nothing new; among stadium crowds and where political correctness doesn't matter much some people e say things like what Maradona said. Squabbles between hooligans are ripe with such crude metaphors, but certainly, the context in which he used those words, not even thinking about what the sponsors of the team would think about having their brands associated with someone who speaks in such ways speak volumes about Maradona's lack of ability as a team leader; he could not even control his mouth. How would he control one of the best and most valuable football teams on Earth?

When emperor Comodus descended into the Roman circus arena he did what the starts of the moment - the gladiators - did every day; that was something applauded by the crowds that saw them fight. That wasn't exactly an enlightened bunch of people but even them found distasteful that their emperor did what they saw as fitting and correct among others. Even the illiterate and the brute expected nearly two thousand years ago to have leaders representing something more than themselves.

In those societies that are well-developed in terms of law, order and politics, leaders receive relatively few privileges, while in others, the same kind of leaders receive much more and even feel as if the society that they lead should be at their service. One would say that more "primitive" societies tend to be more grateful with leaders, but it isn't so: Where there is more experience and wisdom - often based on past mistakes - leaders receive less tolerance and that is the way in which the system saves itself from mistakes that would otherwise grow big enough to threaten social order. Instead, in those societies where leaders usually get more, since people tolerate more little dark spots in their records, nobody raises the alarm for "little things" until they have grown out of proportion. In turn, as part of those leader privileges imply direct power, controls and balances are weaker and thus, people begin to feel as if society itself would not be able to put a halt to corruption by legal means, simply because they know that in their world justice is only the advantage of the powerful. The answer usually is to break the law in order to attempt to stop their leaders from breaking it, but since leaders are nothing more than the reflection of the values of society, this starts a vicious circle that could explain why underdeveloped nations persist in their underdevelopment.

The coach that behaves like hooligan ceases to be a coach and becomes… a hooligan. Leadership is lost by behaving unlike a leader. And hooligans are always first-row spectators in the show of their own decay; their words and actions may last for some minutes, but their consequences almost always entail long-term effects for themselves.

In the case of Argentina, the mental, spiritual and philosophical distance between political and social leaders on one side, and the general public on the other is widening. There are a lot of pending issues and frustration, and most leaders seem to fail to see the anger that is growing at all social levels against them. Clearly, the failure encompasses the whole nation but leaders are always especially responsible, and the kind of contempt shown by Maradona against journalists and thus, freedom of expression, is also contempt for social values and thus, the people. Such contempt only invites others to feel contempt for him and in such a context he has only contributed to make things worse a little bit. In other words, Maradona is - as described by a Spanish newspaper - a fool.

Football is not a life and death issue, indeed, but could be seen as a manifestation of the state of affairs within a society: Argentine football clubs are almost bankrupt despite being one of the best sources for quality athletes in the world. Those players earn fortunes but the clubs where they are discovered and nurtured can barely survive, but the explanation for that is very simple: They cannot make strategic plans because they do not follow their own rules and thus, improvisation becomes a habit. If you don't plan when dealing with lots of capital and money, you tend to lose them. It is as simple as that, and the best proof of such an idiotic policy is the case of Maradona as coach of the national team itself: In order to coach a football team in Argentina, candidates must graduate from a special course which is equivalent to a masters degree in sports. Other team leaders do pass the course; Maradona didn't.

So, he should never have made it to where he is now, but even the AFA directors (the AFA is the Argentine Football Association) applauded his appointment, so the ones who should enforce the rules are the same that violate them, and those rules exist for good reasons. The national team's performance under the aegis of Maradona is one of the lamest ever in the long history of Argentine football, and the reason is as simple as the lack of qualifications. Naturally, there are people - journalists, for the most part - that have protested against that, and that is, in turn, the reason for Maradona's anger against the press: They are technically proficient to judge him as a coach, and their opinions have not been good for him. So, instead of trying to solve the problem by either quitting or going to study before accepting that job, it is easier for him to blame the messenger that delivers the news.

The worst part is that there are other leaders that applaud him, and that reflects a profound lack of commitment to the rules of social order. That nullifies any leadership system, because leaders must believe in the groups, teams or societies that they lead, and if they don't believe I the applicable rules in the first place, they can't fulfil this essential condition. That is perceived by the people and in turn, makes those leaders lose their informal authority over the whole society.

Such leaders cal legally claim authority but are not respected by the members of society. In extreme cases, this dichotomy leads to anarchy because formal leaders that have no informal influence over people can eventually punish, but not make anyone follow them by emulation or persuasion. Anarchy is disorder and that is social confusion; when an individual is confused, when you feel like things are suddenly not going well for you and you can't seem to be able to find an answer for a problem, you usually go to sleep or talk things over with someone able to give you some advice. Sometimes it is better to stop and wait a little in order to gain a better perspective of the issues at hand.

However, Maradona really started to believe at some point that he is a God, but he isn't, of course; God, Allah or whatever you choose to call yours is an ideal concept, perfection itself. Maradona has demonstrated that he is neither perfectly good nor perfectly bad, so the problem with his reason is that while he might believe that he is God, in turn, God will never believe that he is Maradona. His arrogance can only be explained in two ways: Either ignorance or a mental problem.

So, as we stated a few lines ago, Maradona should go to rest for a while and seek some really good advice, but societies can't just do that; there is no way for a country to sleep a siesta and thus, regrettably, when the dynamics of confusion gain momentum in a group of people, they tend to be much harder to stop than in the case of individuals. Maradona has only contributed to give impulse to the confusion that is gaining momentum in the country where he is from. He has achieved nothing good for those he is supposed to represent and thus, should at least keep his mouth shut instead of fuelling chaos with his foul language. Given the circumstances, it would be the wisest thing that one could expect from him.


Simply nature; dawn in early fall, Patagonia.





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