After a perfect start to his career in charge of Argentina, Diego Maradona was brought back down to earth with a bump, following a humiliating defeat in Bolivia.
By Brian Homewood
Diego Maradona’s competitive debut as Argentina coach began with a 4-0 win at home to over Venezuela amid an atmosphere of unbridled euphoria.
Maradona’s three strikers – Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero – shared a goal apiece and Maxi Rodriguez completed the rout on the perfect day for the hosts. “This was better than I expected, reality has overcome fiction,” said Maradona.
Five days later, however, it all came undone in spectacular style as Argentina crashed 6-1 to Bolivia at 12,500 feet in La Paz. It was their worst defeat since losing 5-0 at home to Colombia in 1993 and the first time they have conceded six goals since the 1958 World Cup loss to Czechoslavkia.
Messi and Tevez were upstaged by Joaquin Botero, who plays in the Mexican second division and scored a hat-trick, and Marcelo Martins, who has been warming the substitutes’ bench at Shakhtar Donetsk.
While altitude obviously played a factor, Argentina also looked ill-prepared and seemed to be suffering from the affects of too many barbecues at the team training camp outside Buenos Aires.
Maradona, who last year publicly supported Bolivia’s campaign to be allowed to play in La Paz, overdid his attempts to play down the altitude factor by insisting it was nothing to worry about.
Luck was also on Bolivia’s side, firstly because they were allowed to stage the game on a cabbage patch of a field at the Hernando Siles stadium, and secondly when they won a dubious penalty with the score at 1-1.
Maradona took the defeat on the chin afterwards, refusing to blame the altitude. “Bolivia outplayed us in every part of the pitch. Everyone played well from the goalkeeper to the last substitute,” he said.
Messi, however, did not agree, complaining: “It’s impossible to play in La Paz.”
Argentina dropped to fourth place in the 10-team group, the lowest place in which they can finish and still qualify directly for South Africa.
Brazil came perilously close to losing by a similar scoreline in Quito against Ecuador at 9,000 feet. Instead, an inspired performance from goalkeeper Julio Cesar kept the hosts at bay before Luis Fabiano gave Brazil a hugely undeserved lead in the 74th minute. Substitute Christian Noboa restored some justice with an 89th equaliser for Ecuador.
Brazil then convincingly beat a demoralised Peru 3-0 to go second, three points behind leaders Paraguay, who lost 2-0 away to Uruguay and then snatched a 1-1 draw in Ecuador thanks to an injury-time equaliser from Edgar Benitez.
Noboa had again put Ecuador in front, but two more dropped points at home may prove fatal to their chances of a third successive World Cup appearance.
Chile continued their startling improvement under Marcelo Bielsa, winning 3-1 in Peru – with a side whose average age was 24 – and holding Uruguay 0-0 at home, despite having Mauricio Isla sent off in the first half.
Bielsa fully lived up to his eccentric reputation by bringing on Manuel Iturra in the 38th minute to shore up the midfield, replacing him at half-time, then apologising for what he had done and admitting it was a mistake.
With six rounds of games to go, Paraguay, Brazil, Chile and Argentina currently occupy the top four places. Uruguay are fifth – which would earn a two-leg play off against the fourth CONCACAF team – three points ahead of Ecuador and Colombia, and four clear of Venezuela.
Venezuela just about kept in touch by beating Colombia 2-0 with goals in the last 15 minutes from Nicolas Fedor and a Juan Arango, who scored with a majestic free-kick. With home games still to come against Uruguay, Paraguay and Peru, they still have an outside chance.