Maradona fans lament end of his coaching reign

BUENOS AIRES Thu Jul 29, 2010 11:04pm BST

Former Argentina's national soccer team coach Diego Maradona blows kisses as he arrives to read a statement in Buenos Aires July 28, 2010. REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian

Former Argentina's national soccer team coach Diego Maradona blows kisses as he arrives to read a statement in Buenos Aires July 28, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Enrique Marcarian

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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - The end of Maradona's tenure at the helm of Argentina's national team has dealt a hard blow to his fans, even though his performance as coach was a far cry from his genius as a player.

Maradona accused Argentine soccer chiefs on Wednesday of conspiring to oust him and many fans think he deserved a more dignified exit despite Argentina's disappointing showing at the World Cup.

"He is an iconic figure and deserved a more graceful farewell," said Federico Garcia, 33, who works in retail.

"Here in Argentina, we love Maradona. I think the heads of the AFA (Argentine Football Association) kicked him out in a dodgy way."

AFA's executive committee voted unanimously not to renew Maradona's contract as coach on Tuesday, citing "unbridgeable differences" with the former player, who led Argentina to World Cup victory as captain in 1986.

A solemn Maradona retaliated the following day saying he had been "betrayed" by soccer chiefs and that he had not been given enough time to shine.

"You know that my cycle lasted only for one and a half years. It was the shortest tenure in the past 35 years," he said.

In downtown Buenos Aires, many people said Maradona was "stabbed in the back" and that he was not given a proper shot at running the squad.

IN DISARRAY

"He didn't do such a bad job as coach. We haven't been beyond the quarter-finals in a World Cup since 1990, so I don't think he did much worse than others given that the team was in disarray when he took over,2 said Claudio Yago, 54, who owns a newspaper stand.

Maradona rose to stardom from a Buenos Aires slum, but his rags-to-riches story hit the rocks after he quit soccer in the 1990s and battled drug addiction, obesity and alcohol abuse.

His appointment as coach of the national team in late 2008 was a remarkable comeback, especially as he had little coaching experience.

"To be coach of the national team, you have to work seriously and that's not something Maradona's known for," said geologist Eric Cayo, 33.

Argentina's shambolic World Cup qualifying campaign sent alarm bells ringing for fans and critics alike, but convincing victories in their first four games in South Africa propelled the team into the list of tournament favorites.

Maradona's dreams of reliving World Cup glory as coach were dashed when Germany beat them 4-0 in the quarter-finals.

But he was still given a hero's welcome at home and urged to stay on by team members including World Player of the Year Lionel Messi. Even President Cristina Fernandez said no one deserved to suffer Maradona's abrupt exit from the job.

His die-hard fans say Maradona's history of beating the odds make him the best coach Argentina could ever have.

"As a coach he lacks many things, but it doesn't matter because he's "El Diego"," said Simon Lampa, a consultant for an insurance company.

"I know there are much better coaches in Argentina, but who cares? Maradona is an idol and he inspired the team, for technical staff he had advisers."

(Editing by Helen Popper and Dave Thompson)

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