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The Hugo Chavez of Football

by Dave Durbach / 02.07.2010

For those who doubted the influence of a coach over a national team full of millionaire players, look no further than the differing fortunes of France and Argentina. Consensus about Raymond Dominech being a poes was reached long before he refused to shake Carlos Alberto Parreira’s hand.

Then take a look at Argentina. Diego Maradona has far more experience with coke and controversy than coaching international football, but he has managed to silence his critics simply by bringing the best out of his team.

Argentina’s 3-1 pummeling of Mexico came amidst two other recent performances that showed one and all that the business end of the World Cup is upon us. Germany’s 4-1 pounding of a lackluster England outfit earlier on Sunday, and Brazil’s 3-0 cakewalk over surprise package Chile on Monday have suggested that those three sides are the teams to beat.

Argentina dominated Sunday’s game from start to finish. Carlos Tevez was named man of the match (make that Budweiser Man of the Match™ ) for his two goals, the second a screamer from long range. Gonzalo Higuain, hat-trick hero against South Korea, grabbed another to take his tournament tally to 4. Their third striker is having a quiet World Cup so far, probably because he’s being marked by three defenders at any given moment in the game. That’s what happens when you’re the supposedly the best player in the world.

After the match, no one seemed surprised when Maradona arrived late for the press conference (a rare occasion given FIFA’s militaristic attention to detail), trailed by a cloud of cigar smoke (another FIFA no-no). He was obviously upbeat. “Argentina was superior for ninety minutes. We were doing things perfectly on the pitch…Everything went well, in spite of the fact that we had a good opponent.”

Maradona praised the speed of his players, particularly his star striker, in whom he clearly sees his younger self. “Lionel Messi is like a jet plane on the pitch,” he said, before revealing his frustration at how the Mexicans had taken him out of the game. “I have lived that – as a player, when you have three players on you. When Messi gets the ball, everybody is trying to get him, to kick his legs. What is being done to him is a scandal. They don’t even look for the ball, they look for his legs, to kick him. There’s a limit to everything. I want Messi to be respected.”

Clearly, teams pre-occupied with silencing the Barcelona striker have simply opened the door for Tevez, Higuain and the rest of the Argentinian team. There is no shortage of depth in the squad, which the coach has already made use of. All but five of the 23 man squad have played at least a full 90 minutes. Only three (including the reserve keeper) haven’t made it off the bench yet. While Tevez said he was confused as to why he had been taken off shortly after his second goal, it’s all part of Maradona’s plan. “Here there are no people who are substitutes, or people who will be constantly in the line-up. People must always be ready. They will play. It’s a World Cup. If somebody stumbles, anybody can be replaced at any time. That’s why my relationship with the boys is excellent. They do it out of respect for everyone else, and for the colours on their jersey. We’re ready to fight til the very end, for pride and honour.”

After he had answered the mandatory number of questions, FIFA officials try to draw things to a close. “Is that all?!” Maradona asked, bemused. “Finally I get a chance and he wants to send me off!” And of course, the press conference continued until El Diego said it was done.

Once the greatest player in the world, Maradona is still coming to terms with his new role as coach. But he appears to be reveling in the newfound responsibility.“What can I do with the players… I train them, coach them. We can give them sympathy or love, or whatever. I think its up to the 23 players though. We and the technical team are extremely proud of the players. I believe that these four matches have helped us grow together.”

“It is different, of course. I feel like putting on the jersey and going on the pitch. But it’s beautiful to be part and parcel of this group of players, of the team. I really feel proud that I am indeed sharing this moment. As a coach, they said I had no idea. I’ve won four matches and people suddenly think I am somebody else! But I am the same guy, and I will be the same tomorrow. Victory always feels great, as a coach or as a player. There’s not a major difference. But as a player you can run and scream things that you cannot say from the bench!”

Tomorrow, at 4pm, Argentina face Germany in the quarter-finals, easily the biggest match of the tournament so far.
“We must take stock of our situation. We’ll have to see how we have come out of this match, how the players are feeling. And then we will try to put together the best team, to showcase our talents against Germany. It will be the team who I believe will give me the guarantee to beat Germany. Germany is a different team to the team we just played. They’re stronger. But we will field the right payers to beat them.”

Never short of confidence, and now at the helm of a team in full swing, Maradona’s players will now have to back up their coach’s expectations. Germany, meanwhile, will be going into the game feeling much the same. Don’t be surprised if the winner of that game goes on to lift the trophy 10 days from now.

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