Will Maradona change his tactics to get the best from his array of stars and appease his critics?
For the first time in years, Argentina fans do not look upon their own team as contenders to lift the World Cup, the main reason being that Diego Maradona has rarely been thought to be the right coach for the job.
The popular choice was Carlos Bianchi but, when he rejected the offer, FA president Julio Grondona turned to the man he had seen as the great unofficial motivator of the 2008 Olympic gold medal winners.
In the eight qualifying matches after Maradona took over from Alfio Basile, tactical errors were evident – especially in the 6-1 defeat in Bolivia – and some of the more experienced players were known to be far from content.
There were also disagreements over the appointment of the rest of the backroom staff. Carlos Bilardo – coach of the 1986 World Cup-winners and engaged as team manager to advise Maradona – was told he was not wanted and that he should not come anywhere near the field.
Such disharmony was why, after his side had scraped into the finals with a 1-0 win over Uruguay in their last qualifier, Maradona swore in no uncertain terms at his critics in the post-match press conference to earn himself a two-month suspension by FIFA. Yet even after qualification had been secured, a poll run by a leading newspaper showed that 80 per cent of those who voted did not want him to carry on as coach.
The two friendlies played since then – away to leading European contenders Spain (lost 2-1) and Germany (won 1-0) – have, however, painted a rosier picture with Maradona commenting after the victory in Munich: “This does not make us candidates to be the winners but we showed the world that we will be in there fighting and we will try to get as far as possible.”
Hope lies in the fact that Argentina have so many players showing up well and scoring regularly in the major European leagues, but there is concern that they are not doing it in the national team – especially Lionel Messi, who has never shown his outstanding Barcelona form on the international stage.
There is also despair that Maradona sticks too rigidly to his favourite 4-4-2 formation despite having so many dangerous goalscorers available and therefore making Messi play too far back.
However, Maradona has told Messi that he has licence to roam and that may bring a change of tactics – a move that would go some way to convincing the coach’s detractors of his ability to put together a team capable of competing in South Africa.
The view from Argentina
“Maradona is neither good or bad, but is a better selector than coach. One starts to win the World Cup by picking the right players. He has had more problems in picking the right tactics, but we have so many outstanding players in Europe’s top leagues and in South Africa it will be up to them.”
Daniel Lagares, journalist with daily newspaper La Prensa
“This is the best generation of players in the last 20 years, with so many shining at Europe’s big clubs. Today, we have more players individually outstanding who
can resolve problems by themselves and that is important in a World Cup. Maradona has given them confidence.”
Diego Simeone, former international