World Soccer: How different is the feeling of going to the World Cup as a player before and now as a coach?
Diego Maradona: It’s been so long ago that I can’t remember, but I feel proud when I see my players killing themselves on the field to gain a place. They are the ones who translate their excitement to me. But of course it was easier as a player. I only thought of getting the ball and having fun. Now I have to control 20-odd players. The other day in training a shot bounced off the crossbar to me and I took a shot at goal. Some must have noticed from my happy face that the player in me came out!
What style will the team adopt in South Africa?
It will have the philosophy of [Cesar] Menotti’s 1978 World Cup winners and that of [Carlos] Bilardo’s 1986 winners. You can give the players an idea, but so far I have never had them together for more than a week. Once they are in the match the coach has little participation and they decide.
All your forwards are in form and scoring goals…
It’s an immense joy because they all realise they are playing for a World Cup place. It’s very positive for the squad selection.
Do people believe in you?
The media thinks we are going to finish last and that gives us tremendous strength. In 1986 they also said we were going to be last in Mexico, and we were first, and I continually remind the players of that. But I have the feeling that the people are behind us. I repeat, we are not going to South Africa as favourites, but we hope to get as far as possible.
Why did you have such a problem qualifying for the World Cup?
I took over as coach halfway through the qualifying campaign and the players did not immediately understand my message. It was better in the match against Germany when they knew what to do, but that does not make us World Cup candidates. There are a lot of things to improve, but we showed in that match that we are in the fight and I am at ease because I have a lot of good players. In the qualifiers we also had players absent with injuries, and that can also happen in the World Cup, so it is also a question of luck.
Critics say that with so many goalscoring strikers you should play 4-3-3 instead of 4-4-2…
I tried 4-3-3 in training and I don’t like it much because we were not able to penetrate the defence. I had to return to 4-4-2 so that those in front have more space. I would love to play with three forwards, but perhaps we will try it again when we have more time to train together before the World Cup.
Did Juan Roman Riquelme’s resignation from the national team teach you anything?
It hurt me a lot. I don’t know what he has against me, but you do not say no to the national team. He is a very good player and would be chosen, if only to increase competition for places. But I am not going to ask him to come back. It would not be fair to the many players who would do anything to play for the national team.
You have been criticised for calling up more than 100 players in a year…
If I wasn’t trying out players I would not be in this job. No other coach has played internationals with only home-based players, so it is normal that I had to pick many different ones. You have to check if they are prepared to give their all for the national team.
Why can’t Lionel Messi play as well for Argentina as he does for Barcelona?
Messi is undoubtedly the best player in the world – now better than Cristiano Ronaldo – and he has all the potential to be the star of the World Cup. We must do our best to help him to be. I think the answer is to allow him a roaming role on the field. I don’t believe in fixed positions, much less with Messi, and I told him so when we finally had a long conversation in Barcelona in March. We had talked on the phone before, but he is more difficult to get hold of than US president [Barack] Obama.