Diego Armando Maradona is a total legend. He lights up the world cup on and off the pitch.
The truth is, the world cup needed him as much as he needed the world cup.
Heinze’s goal vs Nigeria was straight off the training ground, something Maradona had worked on tirelessly with his players.
Careful who you say this to in South America, but something strange seems to have happened at the start of this World Cup: Argentina have become the new Brazil.
We are still early in the tournament, but one thing has become startlingly clear from their first two games in South Africa – Argentina have come to entertain, as well as to try to win the World Cup.
Led by their flamboyant, controversial, larger-than-life coach Diego Maradona, the Albiceleste have so far produced two fine performances and attacked with a relentless gusto seldom seen elsewhere in a tournament that has flattered to deceive.
Now, before you skip to the end to post a comment accusing me of jumping on an all-too-obvious bandwagon, this Argentina team certainly have their weaknesses, with their defensive frailties summed up in the 4-1 win over South Korea by a moment of spectacular indecision from Martin Demichelis.
Centre-back is not the only area they might struggle, either. Rumour has it that the Newcastle manager Chris Hughton was “stunned” after Maradona picked hard-working midfielder Jonas Gutierrez at right-back in their 1-0 opening win over Nigeria, a selection he repeated at Soccer City on Thursday.
Doubts must also linger over goalkeeper Sergio Romero, with the eight-times capped 22-year-old yet to be put under any real pressure as Argentina have dominated possession in both their Group B outings.
But in the middle of a World Cup critically short of flair, intention and a willingness to gamble, Maradona’s Argentina might just lead us towards some light at the end of the tunnel.
In the same way that Brazil coach Dunga picked a squad in his own image with a plethora of defensive-minded midfielders and solid, dependable footballers he knew would not let him down, Maradona flooded the Argentine 23 with goals.
In choosing six strikers who between them have plundered 170 goals in the last 12 months domestically, Maradona was sending a message to the other 31 competing nations that his team would not be afraid to play on the offensive.
The Argentine coach is lucky, because no other coach can rely on such a potent strikeforce, which includes the sublime skills of the world’s greatest footballer, Lionel Messi. So often criticised for his laboured displays for his country, Messi has started the World Cup like he means to win it with two peformances of dictatorial quality.
Maradona was severely criticised for not getting the best out of Messi in qualifying, but he has given his star man a roving role in South Africa and implored him to become the leader of the team in the same way he took on the mantle so successfully in Mexico in 1986.
The chemistry between the two has long been a subject of fascination, but so far at this World Cup their relationship has worked to perfection, with a jubilant Maradona lifting Messi into the air and then hugging him all the way down the tunnel after the final whistle on Thursday.
It was after the Nigeria game that Maradona, ever the dreamer, gave away his feelings on how he wants his team to function: “I want Messi to be very close to the ball. As long as he has fun, then we are all going to have fun. Football wouldn’t be beautiful unless Messi is touching the ball all the time.”
Every time Messi touched the ball at Soccer City against South Korea, there was a genuine buzz of excitement among the 82,174 present, even among the South Korean journalists standing nervously to my right. When the score reached 4-1, one of them even told me he wanted Messi to score, just so he could say he’d seen it happen.
With Messi starting alongside Carlos Tevez, hat-trick hero Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria, Argentina’s attacking potential is frightening, especially when you consider they brought £35m-rated Sergio Aguero off the bench in the second half and left Inter Milan’s treble-winning hero Diego Milito on it for the duration.
But as impressive – and most certainly as important – as their world-class quality in the final third is the astonishing work-rate of Maradona’s team to close down spaces, win back possession when they lose it and panic the other team into making mistakes.
Led by the indefatigable Tevez, this was a frontline whose hard work and enterprise at times mirrored that of Messi’s other team, Barcelona. They might enjoy the majority of the possession in the majority of games they play, but watch them when they don’t have the ball – that’s when they really kill their opposition.
That effort does not happen when a team is not playing for their manager. What is also only too clear when you watch them both on and off the pitch is that – after a difficult start during the qualifiers – these Argentina players not only adore their manager, but they trust him to make the right decisions as well.
With South Korea piling pressure on in the second half at 2-1 down and with 15 minutes remaining, Maradona had a difficult decision to make. But he stayed true to his instincts and refused to retreat into a defensive shell, sending on Aguero for Tevez and keeping the shape of the side the same.
Two minutes later, Higuain had tapped in after Messi had struck the post and three minutes after that Higuain nodded in Aguero’s cross to wrap it up. Better to be a lucky coach than a good one, eh Diego?
Thousands of Argentines lingered at Soccer City for a long time after the final whistle, triumphantly singing and dancing in the aisles as they blew their vuvuzelas in ecstasy at what they had just seen. To their surprise, they were joined by scores of South Africans who had found the perfect therapy for Bafana Bafana’s devastating defeat at the hands of Uruguay on Wednesday.