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Swearing at fans, squirting water at a linesman - The crazy story of Maradona's first spell as a coach in Argentina

15:25 BST 09/09/2019
Maradona Racing PS
The legend is returning to the bench in Argentina's top flight, where he last coached in a short but memorable stint in 1994-95

“I do not know if we will train much with Diego, but we will certainly enjoy a few barbecues.” Paraguayan playmaker Guido Alvarenga was cautiously optimistic upon hearing that Diego Maradona, recently sent home in disgrace from the 1994 World Cup after failing a drugs test, would be taking the reins at Deportivo Mandiyu.

The club from Corrientes had been in Argentina's Primera División for six years, and with flamboyant businessman Roberto Cruz now at the helm aspired to greater things. Maradona, alongside joint-coach Carlos Fren and with fellow 1990 World Cup finalist Sergio Goycochea in goal, was part of that masterplan for glory. What followed was one of the most curious stages of El Pibe de Oro's incredible career, as he sat on the bench for the first time.

Maradona was of course obliged to trade in his boots. A 15-month ban handed down by FIFA prohibited him from playing anywhere in the world after the World Cup, and he decided to give coaching a try.

The decision to take the reins at Mandiyú was also apt: Corrientes had been the home of his parents before emigrating to the tough shanty town of Villa Fiorito in Buenos Aires prior to Diego's birth; it was a 'homecoming' in every sense.

The promise of seeing an Argentina legend on the bench had Corrientes in a frenzy. The stadium was packed for his first game, a home clash against Rosario Central, and a huge banner that read “Welcome Diego” was brandished on the pitch by the Mandiyu players prior to kick-off.

Maradona himself watched from the stands, having yet to complete the coaching course necessary to officially take over as coach, while Fren directed from pitchside. There was no joy for the home support, however, who saw their team downed 2-1 by Central while Maradona screamed and gesticulated from afar.

All eyes might have been on Diego, but he was careful to give his friend and colleague Fren equal credit. “We have the same authority here, if the players talk to me first it is only to ask me about one goal or other that I scored, a few more than Carlos,” he joked to reporters after that game.

Neither, however, looked capable of stopping the rot at Mandiyú. After just 12 games, a solitary win, six draws – including a blockbuster 2-2 draw away to River Plate – and five defeats Maradona resigned as coach, and at the end of the 1994-95 season the Corrientes side were relegated. Cruz withdrew his funding and Mandiyú were forced to fold, less than a year after that rapturous welcome for Diego had appeared to herald a new age for the institution.

Unbowed, the still-suspended legend did not have to wait long for his next coaching job. Racing Club, one of the traditional 'big five' of Argentine football, had fallen on hard times, enduring a drought in the Primera División that had led to 29 years without a title. Maradona and Fren arrived in January 1995 ahead of the Clausura campaign, taking over a team that boasted the talents of young striker Claudio 'Piojo' López, later of Valencia fame.

“I took him to Racing,” Claudio 'Turco' García, Academia favourite and former neighbour of the legend in Villa Fiorito, told Fox Radio. “I told president Juan De Stefano to hire him and he said, 'how can we afford him?' I answered, 'Look, it's Diego, he'll pay for himself, we can put adverts behind for press conferences, it'll be fine.”

The man himself, presented in his new home in a garish floral shirt (pictured above) at the start of the new year, stated his delight at starting a “new era, a new life suffering on the bench. Let's hope we suffer as little as possible with the lads.” He was also looking forward to the end of his suspension, stating that if he was still at Racing when the ban ended “I'll play myself, although that also depends on Carlitos Fren”.

His stay in Avellaneda, however, did not make it that far. Maradona was as colourful as ever on the bench, holding his middle fingers up to an entire stadium on one occasion to mark a penalty saved by Racing's Ignacio González.

There was also a memorable incident in his first derby against Independiente, when he was sent off by referee Bava for squirting water at a linesman - “I just wanted to get his attention,” he would explain afterwards. But results were just as disappointing as at Mandiyú. In 11 games Diego managed just two victories, drawing six and suffering three defeats, and when De Stefano left the coach followed him out of the Cilindro door.

There was plenty still to write in the Maradona story, from his subsequent return to the pitch with Boca to drug troubles, serious health problems and that roller-coaster coaching comeback out of the blue with the national team 13 years after his last spell on the bench had ended in such subdued fashion.

His spotted coaching record has been somewhat redeemed as of late thanks to an impressive spell in Mexico with Dorados, who fell just short of promotion with Maradona on the bench. Now Gimnasia, in dire relegation straits in the Superliga, have called on the wayward superstar in the hope he can turn things around. Whatever happens at the La Plata club, though, one thing is certain: these next few months will be thrilling to watch.