Maradona MADNESS; A Dig at FIFA, a Swipe at Spain, but Diego and Argentina Are Thriving

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

Maradona MADNESS; A Dig at FIFA, a Swipe at Spain, but Diego and Argentina Are Thriving


Byline: From Joe Bernstein IN PRETORIA

FOR all Diego Maradona's mad and infuriating ways, he has emerged as the single biggest attraction of this World Cup. On the streets of South Africa, this dumpy middle-aged man, who turns 50 this year, has created more excitement than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney put together.

Maradona plays down his part in Argentina's progress, even though his multi-talented team have won all three of their group games in style and are now many observers' favourites to win the World Cup.

'Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are stars but the at the World Cup it is the players who make the difference,' he said. 'You don't have star coaches in a World Cup. The players decide how we get on -- we are more guides than anything else.'

Maradona might lack the tactical awareness of a Sunday League manager and he nearly achieved the impossible when his team almost failed to reach the tournament. But he has not put a foot wrong since he arrived here.

His decision to axe Champions League winners Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti from the squad because of personality differences with other players has not harmed Argentina. In fact, they seem the happiest camp in the tournament. The players share rooms and are allowed to see their families once a week when wives and children stay in apartments near the training camp.

Yesterday, Maradona accepted that his World Cup history -- left out of the squad in 1978, sent off in '82, winner in '86, finalist in '90 and sent home in disgrace in '94 -- gives him the authority to deal with superstars such as Messi and Carlos Tevez. 'I have picked up lots of experiences and this is what I can give to the players with my heart and soul,' he said in typically florid fashion. 'I can tell the players what happened to me in the past and give them the facts.'

The starkest fact of all is that Maradona, a legend on the pitch and notorious, of course, for his Hand of God goal against England when he captained Argentina's 1986 World Cup side, has achieved an extraordinary reversal in his personal standing. A few weeks ago he was branded a liability, criticised for being a naive tactician and an attention grabber who was the worst person for the job of national coach.

Three wins later, Argentina are one of only two teams with a 100 per cent record here and are now strongly favoured to become champions.

'It's not easy going from being nobody in your own country to winning three matches,' joked Maradona, wearing his now familiar diamond-studded earrings.

'People said we were a disaster in qualification and the worst team ever. Now, after three wins, they consider us the most beautiful team in the world. I don't hold a grudge but what makes me mad is the lack of respect towards the players. The critics should apologise for massacring reputations. It has not been easy for the players. I tell them to keep working and when the road gets narrow, we have to fight.'

If both Argentina and England win today, they will meet next Saturday in the mother of all quarter-finals. Maradona insisted, however, that Argentina, even with Messi in their ranks, should not be considered potential winners. 'I keep on saying it but others are the favourites.'

Maradona seems to be embracing the big decisions managers have to make. Influential midfielder Juan Veron might be axed against the nippy Mexico team today as age catches up with him, while Champions League hero Diego Milito again looks set to be left on the bench. …

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