After 16 years, Diego Maradona makes his return to the World Cup in South Africa.
The Argentinian was last seen at football’s showpiece in 1994 after Argentina’s match against Nigeria, a team he now faces as coach tomorrow in the opening match in Group B.
Nigeria, meanwhile, will be looking to avenge the defeat in the final of the Olympic Football Tournament 2008 in China, where Argentina triumphed. The African side will be hopeful that coach Lars Lagerback, who led Sweden to a 1-1 draw with today’s opponents back at the 2002 World Cup finals, will be able to upset the odds again today.
Up to ten players from the Olympic final could be involved in Johannesburg: Sergio Romero, Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Dele Adeleye, Sani Kaita, Peter Odemwingie, Chinedu Ogbuke and Victor Obinna.
Having come through a difficult and at times turbulent qualifying campaign, the Argentinians are ready to start anew in South Africa. Maradona, with a wealth of attacking talent at his disposal, has a difficult selection decision to make when it comes to who to leave out.
Expected to start are Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain, who amassed 61 goals between them last season, which leaves the likes of Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez, Champions League winner Diego Milito and Maradona’s son-in-law, Sergio Aguero, all competing for one starting spot. The current speculation seems to indicate that Tevez will get the nod for the opening game.
“Carlitos cannot be left out of the team. He is an idol of the people, more than me and Lionel Messi, so I read,” Maradona says.
The Argentinian coach, who hasn’t forgotten what happened in their opening match in Italy in 1990 when Cameroon stunned the reigning champions, said he hoped the referees would ensure the African side plays fair.
“We know how Nigeria play and they know how we play. We don’t expect to play a rough and tough team, although we’re ready to play any team,” said Maradona.
“But the only thing I can say right now is those looking for fair-play should not stand alone.
“Let’s really look for fair play and referees should understand what fair play is.
“When fair play started in 1990 I got a kick from a Cameroon player who nearly kicked my head off.
“Claudio Caniggia got a yellow card for a small kick and I nearly got kicked in the head.
“We’ve been through that but we want good football, we want fair play, we want to enjoy the match.
“If you don’t want to play clean football, go into the stands. People want to see football and we want people to watch football peacefully without violence.”
The Super Eagles also struggled during the qualifying campaign, although they will be hopeful coach Lagerback can help them rediscover their form in South Africa. Nigeria go into this game hoping to reverse the trend of their previous two World Cup encounters with the Argentinians, in 1994 and 2002, which saw the South Americans run out winners on both occasions.
The Swede said he was satisfied with the readiness of the players for the challenges ahead.
”We are in good shape for the competition and we just have to be focused on Saturday,” Lagerback said.
“The players have been working very hard in the past one week or more and the result is beginning to show.
“Our last friendly match was good and the players‘ response to training has been fantastic. Everything is going on well for the team to do well and we are looking into some other areas to get better.
“No doubt we are going to miss a player like Mikel (Obi) in this competition but others are up to the task. As a coach, you will always want your best for every match.”
Mikel’s place could well go to Monaco youngster Lukman Haruna, who has impressed in warm-up games.
Argentina: Romero; Gutierrez, Demichelis, Samuel, Heinze; Veron, Mascherano, Di Maria; Messi, Higuain, Tevez.
Nigeria: Enyeama; Apam, Yobo, Nwaneri, Taiwo; Etuhu; Obasi, Haruna, Odemwingie; Martins Yakubu.