Sunday, June 13, 2010
Enigmatic Maradona proves credentials
As a player, Diego Maradona's unpredictability singled him out as the most iconic figure in world football. As a coach, it had got him into all sorts of difficulty - until Saturday.
• Argentina 1-0 Nigeria
• Maradona tastes sweet success
• Kelly: Messi finally makes his mark
Even the most knowledgeable Argentine scribes had not the slightest idea which team Maradona would pick ahead of his team's World Cup opener against Nigeria - or what kind of formation he would send them out in.
Hardly surprising. Having only just squeezed into the finals directly, serious questions existed - and still do - about whether Maradona is the right man to carry the Argentine challenge given both his inexperience in the hot seat and the amount of baggage that has accompanied him off the field over recent years.
His reign has been nothing if not eventful, from the lows of a 6-1 thrashing by Bolivia at altitude to the highs of a qualification-clinching victory away to bitter rivals Uruguay. For several weeks, until that nail-biting win in Montevideo, it looked as if Argentina may have to face a play-off, or worse not qualify at all.
Constantly meddling with the squad and using over 100 players in the process meant there had been no continuity and the thousands of Argentine fans inside Ellis Park - let alone an entire nation back home - wondered exactly how their mercurial coach would cope in the heat of battle when it really mattered.
The answer was pretty well. His tactics were sound and his players looked like a proper team rather than a group of individual galacticos with no direction or cohesion . The only thing missing was the hatful of goals they should have scored, something about which Maradona could do little and which happens to any team.
Sporting a natty beard and an even nattier grey-brown suit in the dugout, Maradona stood for virtually the whole game - sometimes arms crossed looking the picture of calm concentration, sometimes kicking out in frustration at Argentina's wastefulness in front of goal.
Or is that being unfair? Nine times out of ten, Argentina would have won this game comfortably. The fact that they came up against an inspired goalkeeper who is already a contender for stopper of the tournament should take nothing away from a devastating Lionel Messi performance in skill and balance.
In the press conference that followed, Maradona swapped his suit for football kit, leaned in front of a bank of microphones and reverted to unpredictable type.
Did he think he could become another Franz Beckenbauer and win the World Cup both as a player and manager? "I do not even look like Franz Beckenbauer" was his reply.
Why did he switch from his usual 4-4-2 formation? "I chose the selection I thought we needed."
Who did he fear in the tournament? "I don't fear anyone - unless he is wearing a mask."
Typical Maradona, still keeping his audience transfixed. Just as he did when lifting the World Cup in 1986; just as he did over the
infamous Hand of God incident; just as he did when his weight ballooned during those dark days of drugs and debauchery; just as he did when his team almost came a cropper in qualifying.
Saturday's fixture was as big as any group game in terms of global interest, positively dripping with intrigue and anticipation given Maradona's unique status.
Cheekily, 24 years after the Hand of God, Argentina's most outspoken and controversial footballing icon pleaded for fair play from the officials on the eve of the sell-out clash, wary perhaps of the officials taking revenge for his outrageous piece of cheating over a generation ago.
Wary too, of his own treatment at the hands of Cameroon back in 1990 when the Africans finished with nine men after battering Argentina into submission. Again, typical Maradona.
But when the dust has settled on his managerial debut in a major finals, the verdict will be 'job done'. He will know his team, at the death, got lucky. Had Nigeria taken one of a couple of golden chances late in the game, Argentina would have been made to pay and Maradona would once again be facing the music. But with the eyes of the world glued to his every gesture, he came across as if he knew exactly what he was doing. And that was perhaps the biggest relief for a nation that had held its collective breath.