Perhaps the biggest symbol of Diego Maradona’s time in charge of Argentina is defender Nicolas Otamendi…for two main reasons.
First, because Maradona has made a point of playing friendlies with a squad solely made up of home-based players. Otamendi featured in the first of them, against Panama in May of last year, and was soon plunged straight into the tumultuous World Cup qualification campaign.
At the time of his national debut, Otamendi had played little more than a handful of games for Velez Sarsfield, the Buenos Aires club whose youth ranks he scaled. He was the sensation of the 2009 clausura in the first half of the year, when an injury to Chilean Waldo Ponce meant Otamendi was promoted to the first team for the third match of the campaign He looked instantly at home, so neat and full of classy interceptions that he stayed for the duration as Velez lifted the title. He was also named centre-back of the championship.
Which brings us to the other reason for naming him as a symbol of Maradona’s side. On the evidence of the 1-0 win in Germany at the start of March, Otamendi has a strong chance of featuring in Argentina’s starting line-up in the World Cup. But not in his natural position. He could be at right-back in a defensive line that, along with Martin Demichelis, Walter Samuel and Gabriel Heinze, essentially consists of four centre-backs.
This arrangement was first used against Uruguay in the last round of World Cup qualification. It looked then like a one-off measure, designed to keep out an opponent with dangerous strikers but little midfield elaboration in a match where a draw was good enough.
But the evidence of the Germany game – in which goalkeeper Sergio Romero had just one shot to save – is this has become Maradona’s plan for South Africa. At Barcelona, Lionel Messi has Dani Alves opening up the pitch from right-back; for the national team he has a converted centre-back.
This might well be tough on Otamendi. He has little vocation for pushing forward down the flank and, at 22, remains a player of limited experience. Even in his true centre-back role he found domestic football to World Cup qualification a huge step up. On his debut against Ecuador he nearly gave away a goal with his first touch. Brazil gave Otamendi a lesson on life at the top table, scoring their clinching goal with a delicious Kaka pass inside him for Luis Fabiano. In December he had problems in the air and on the ground as Argentina’s defence caved in against Catalonia.
It was harsh on a very promising player thrown in at the deep end and the World Cup will be a stiffer test. “My game is anticipation,” he says. “I like to read the action and go to snuff out the danger.” He does it very well, but at right-back he will face wingers running at him, which could expose a tendency to go to ground too much.
His coach seems pleased enough, though. “Otamendi had a great game,” said Maradona after the final whistle against Germany. “I’m happy with the defence. We kept a clean sheet and that was what was worrying me.”
Otamendi will try to ensure that Maradona can puff on his cigars with similar tranquillity in South Africa.