I have to say, I like this Argentina team. I’ve never been a particular supporter or proponent of the Argentineans before, but something about this team merits my attention and admiration. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I happened to be in a bar full of football supporters, from all different countries, when Argentina had their do or die qualifying match against Peru back in October of 2009. The energy was electric and the game was incredible to watch. Astonishingly, Argentina had not done well in qualifying up to this point. They left it late into the rounds before finally securing their, some might say “rightful place” in the World Cup. The game was played under heavy rain and Argentina remained at 1-1 into the dying minutes. Commentators were practically writing obituaries of Argentina manager Diego Maradona as they scrutinized the last few moments of the match. As the rain poured down in injury time, 36 year-old Martin Palermo of Boca Juniors sprang into action and scored the winning goal. While it was not the match that completely clinched qualification, it was a match they could not afford to drop points in and the rest is history.
Nine months later, Argentina arrived in South Africa ready to be taken very seriously. But before they even had a chance to kick a ball in anger, pundits were writing them off. ‘Do so at your peril,’ I thought. The obvious choices of Spain, Brazil, and Germany were on the lips of journalists as favorites to win, but I believed that there was something special brewing in this Argentina side. Despite their somewhat wobbly qualification, they endured and most likely cemented an incredible team spirit through their trials en route to South Africa. And while no one ever completely writes off Argentina, there was less confidence in this team than in previous years.
Many saw Diego Maradona as a liability rather than an asset. Not Argentinean supporters of course, who believe the man is God incarnate, but rather the objective football fan. Understandably, Argentina sees Maradona with rose-colored glasses, but even they can admit the man has not had the most illustrious past. Despite his football acumen, his struggles with drugs and weight have hit the headlines more in the past 15 years than his playing prowess. But all credit to him; in the last few years he cleaned himself up, had an operation to help with his weight gain issues, and re-emerged in Argentina as a respected football pundit. He was handed the illustrious reigns of managing his country in 2008, and no one in Argentina would think to argue the choice.
The man knows glory, and lucky for him, he has a squad brimming with talent. To say, “the next Maradona” is now studying under him wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Lionel Messi, at the young age of 22 (he turns 23 tomorrow) is perhaps the most prolific player in the world since El Diego. His touch is mesmerizing and after a season where he scored 34 goals for Barcelona, no one would dare disagree with his standing as best in the world. And yet, Argentina still has an embarrassment of riches to call on other than the pint sized forward. You could start with the man Maradona famously used when describing his team, “My team is Mascherano and ten others.” The combative midfielder doesn’t posses the grace and skill of some his compatriots, but what he lacks in style, he makes up for in pure aggression. Add to that Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Maxi Rodriguez, and Martin Dimichelis, and you’ve got one good looking squad. Maradona was so blessed he was even able to leave behind veterans Zanetti and Cambiasso and take instead Juan Veron and Martin Palermo.
Now we come back full circle to Palermo. Some were shocked at the player’s inclusion, even after his extraordinary goal in qualifying. As one of only six players playing their club football in Argentina, Palermo was a man Maradona was not leaving behind. And yesterday, against Greece in their final group match of the World Cup, Maradona was proved right. Rather than sure things up at the back with a 1-0 lead in tact, Maradona put Palermo in at the end of the game to go out and score another. He did just that. Palermo poached a goal and in the celebrations after, his entire team came running over to him. Maradona jumped into the arms of one of his staff on the sidelines, unable to contain his excitement.
This moment epitomized Argentina so far in this World Cup. They are a unit, banded together and there for each other on the pitch. Maradona’s wild enthusiasm and the love he shows for his players go beyond the typical relationship of a manager and his squad. Maradona didn’t pick players based solely on reputation and name, he picked the players he believed in with the conviction that they will return the favor with performances. And not necessarily performances that are only sensational blowouts, but performances with heart. This is the first team in South Africa to look as if they are truly enjoying themselves. And a lot of the credit must be given to Maradona, the man many believed to be the team’s major liability. Before the tournament, I believed Argentina would win the World Cup, or at the very least go far, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Now I know. It’s not just the talent, but the spirit Maradona and his 23 men have that will see this team reach great heights, in this World Cup and beyond.