Part two of Rex Gowar’s account of Argetina’s World Cup qualifying tribulation
Part one here
Amid all the criticism heaped on Maradona since the 6-1 debacle against Bolivia in La Paz, he had been unlucky. The team’s sensible, unrushed performance in their next match at altitude in Ecuador deserved a victory, but Carlos Tevez missed a penalty, a Messi chance went the wrong side of a post and the team lost their legs in the final quarter of an hour, conceding twice for a 2-0 defeat.
A 3-2 friendly win in Russia in August was all the action Argentina saw between the Ecuador match and meeting Brazil, who in contrast played five games on their way to winning the Confederations Cup in South Africa.
Injuries to Martin Demichelis and Jonas Gutierrez, two players Maradona pens onto the team sheet without a second thought, played a part in his surprising decision to bloat his squad with locally-based players, including uncapped 36-year-old defender Rolando Schiavi and 35-year-old striker Martin Palermo, who had won all of his seven previous caps in 1999.
As it happened Schiavi (becoming Argentina’s oldest-ever debutant) and Palermo combined to almost pull a stoppage-time equaliser out of the fire – the team’s only real chance against Paraguay, who had taken a first-half lead with a fine goal by Nelson Haedo Valdez.
Many fans wanted to see Maradona resign or be sacked but the media knew that he would never quit or be booted out by Grondona, who would not want two coaching departures in one World Cup cycle after Alfio Basile’s exit a year ago Grondona had wanted a meeting with Maradona the week after the Paraguay defeat to suggest he take more advice from his entourage, who include the AFA technical director, Carlos Bilardo. But Maradona went off to Europe for a break instead.
Silently pacing the touchline, Maradona, watched aghast at what was happening – or wasn’t in Argentina’s case – as his team handed Brazil then Paraguay their tickets to South Africa while they dropped into the play-off berth. They will be dependent on other results to emerge from it even if they win their last two qualifiers against Peru and Uruguay.
This, on paper, should happen, given that Ecuador visit Chile in their last match when Bielsa’s side, quite apart from their commitment to attack and winning, may still need at least a point to secure their qualification.
But even a win against Peru leaves Argentina with the daunting task of crossing the Rio de la Plata to face old foes Uruguay in a match both may need to win to qualify.
Five teams are vying for two places, assuming Chile claim the third automatic qualifying berth behind Brazil and Paraguay. Ecuador have 23 points, Argentina 22, Uruguay and Venezuela 21 and Colombia 20, with one taking the fourth automatic place and the next facing a two-leg play-off with the CONCACAF’s fourth-placed team, which at present is Costa Rica.
Argentina and Uruguay have both been there before, when Oceania winners Australia were their opponents. Maradona led Argentina to a tight win in 1993, while Uruguay won in 2001 and Australia in 2005. History, it seems, may yet repeat itself.