'D10s' and 'Messias' aim for glory
"Success or failure, it'll be spectacular," I wrote on this website back in October 2008, when Diego Maradona was unveiled as Argentina manager on his 48th birthday. Argentina's route to South Africa certainly hasn't been dull, and Maradona's provided no shortage of 'highlights' (of a sort) from the sidelines along the way. As I wrote back in that same article, though, the first match of the World Cup is where he can really start trying to prove the doubters - myself included - wrong.
Criticised back in his homeland for not having played any warm-up friendlies - the 5-0 win against Canada the day before the country's bicentenary was more like a training session in front of 65,000 highly-paying fans - Maradona insisted his squad spent almost their entire first week in Pretoria's High Performance Centre closed off from the outside world. During the first four days, all the Argentine media had to work with was Sergio Aguero's Twitter feed, which is about as controversial as you'd expect from a player who a) is the manager's son-in-law and b) desperately wants to get a run in the team.
Since the first press conference, however, which starred Maradona alongside team captain Javier Mascherano in a strictly supporting role, the mood has changed a bit. For one thing, every subsequent press conference has served to underline how united the team are towards their mission. Gabriel Heinze on Wednesday talked a particularly good game: "Four consecutive national team managers have put their faith in me. I value that," he replied to a question asking what he thought of the fact that many Argentines feel he doesn't deserve a place in the squad. The journalist who asked that question, incidentally, was the same one whom Maradona memorably accused of "taking it up the a**e" following the 1-0 win over Uruguay that sealed qualification.
Another reason for some optimism is that a previously unsuspected strength of having Maradona as manager became apparent, at least to the (relatively) neutral observer watching on TV from Buenos Aires. Because in spite of team captain Mascherano's presence, the vast, vast majority of questions were directed to Maradona. When the pressure's on, and the squad could potentially be in the line of fire, the one man that both the Argentine and international media will want a quote from is not one of the players but Diego Maradona. Jose Mourinho does something similar by carefully calculating everything he says in public. Maradona's created a similar aura simply by being a basket case.
And being a basket case, ultimately, is still the problem, and the reason that, in spite of the positive noises from the camp and a renewed confidence in the squad's ambition, many Argentines would still be delighted to reach the quarter-finals.
Maradona's looking beyond his initial 'four centre backs across the defence' safety-first ploy, realising he can afford to be a bit more ambitious than that against most teams. Sadly, this realisation has arrived after he named a squad with only one out-and-out full back - Celemente Rodriguez - and thus Newcastle United's Jonas Gutierrez will be the man played at right back. And having finally won fans and media in his homeland over with two goals in the Champions League final, Diego Milito still finds himself behind Gonzalo Higuain in the centre forward pecking order, in spite of Higuain's comparatively slow finish to the season. More worryingly, many suspect Maradona still holds Martin Palermo in higher regard due to his close friendship with the Boca Juniors veteran.
If anything happens to Javier Mascherano - injury or suspension - Mario Bolatti, who's spent the last season struggling to get playing time for Fiorentina's reserves, is the only replacement at defensive midfield. Bolatti, of course, is in the squad courtesy of his late winner against Uruguay. I've praised Seba Veron in these quarters many times before, and still love watching him play, but he's too slow and plays too deep to be starting in this team, in the opinion of myself and many others. An opinion Maradona, needless to say, disagrees with.
At least Argentina will have quality up front. In the last few days, as training has become more open and Maradona's plans more crystallised, it's become clear that a 4-3-3 is the formation of choice. A front line of (from right to left) Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez is not to be taken lightly, even though Milito might be slightly more deserving of a start in the central role. Jonas' legwork should also ensure that Messi gets some support from his right back, in a similar (if less high-quality) fashion to that given him by Daniel Alves at Barcelona. And Angel Di Maria, ridiculously one-footed though he may be, is coming off the back of a brilliant season at Benfica.
All the same, the squad's lack of defensive cover and balance is a worry, as is Maradona's tactical nous. In a normal year, never mind after the season they've just had, Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti would be shoo-ins for any squad in the tournament. So why didn't they even make Argentina's shortlist, when the likes of Bolatti and Ariel Garce did? While it's undeniable that a man who played in two World Cup finals, winning one, has something to teach the team, the last two years have demonstrated he might have been better employed as an assistant of some sort. And the men who are the assistants have even less coaching experience than Diego.
With a lack of balance and an inexperienced manager, the consensus - although there are optimists here as well - suggests that the quarter-finals are the realistic limit, in spite of what Fabio Capello calls "the most talented squad at the World Cup".
"A nation of 40 million managers," as a wise man once said, are praying and hoping that the one who matters - the one they call God - can prove them wrong. It's time to find out.