Maradona Still Demands the Spotlight

World Cup Game 3: 12/6/2010 Johannesburg- Ellis Park Stadium

Group B- Argentina  1 v Nigeria  0

The Olympic Games’ only rival as The Greatest Show On Earth is with us once again. Unlike the Olympics, which seem more bound by official rules, protocols and pomp, the World Cup always has much more the feel of a joyous riot about it. This is largely owing to the crowds, who bring such an exuberant  sense of celebration to so many of the matches.

For most Australians, sitting at home through chilly winter nights, the TV’s glow brings tangible meaning to all those clichés about shared global experiences. All the richer now that our own team gets to join the party.

But for all that the crowds bring, it’s ultimately the players and coaches who determine the show. The way each country expresses itself through its tactics and play does much to cement impressions for years to come. Surely Brazil’s team has been the biggest thing going for that country on the world stage. Italy’s ability to organise their team seems to stand in complete contrast to their ability to organise their country. The Germans’ uncanny ability to back themselves in penalty shootouts speaks of calm resolve and purpose.

I claim no great insight into the finer points of the game. The difference between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations largely elude me, as do the tactical implications of either. But many of the skills involved are plain for all to see. And every tournament produces its heroes and villains as the story unfolds.

In terms of heroes and villains, no man has lived both roles more than Diego Maradona. From Hand Of God,  to World Cup winner,  to drug disgrace, Maradona has seen it all. In a time when most rock stars seem more like businessmen, Maradona is a real rock star.

Whoever decided to appoint him coach of Argentina for this campaign must have a finally honed sense of drama. Already, the journey has been rocky. Qualification saw dozens of players trawled through, and only a couple of last gasp wins has them here at all. But here they are. And with FIFA Player of the Year Lionel Messi amongst their ranks, you couldn’t discount them.

Nigeria’s Super Eagles announced themselves on the world soccer stage in the mid 90’s with a dynamic athleticism which promised to make them a major power. Sadly, their administrator’s have subsequently displayed a talent for allowing political intrigue to interfere with sporting imperatives that would only be rivalled by Zimbabwean or Pakistani cricket authorities. As late as February, the coach who led them to qualification was replaced with a Swede.

So anything seemed possible as these sides began their respective  Group B campaigns.

Argentina wasted little time putting their stamp on affairs. They attacked from kick off and took the lead at the 6th minute when Gabriel Heinz thundered a header into the net. In the next 20 minutes they could have scored several more, as Messi threatened to run riot. Only Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama held the tide at bay with some brilliant saves.

At first glance, Messi appears a rather nondescript  little guy, but with the ball at his feet, it soon becomes apparent the options are endless. He danced, weaved, passed and shot, while defenders fretted and prayed. But Enyeama held firm, and the initial storm finally passed for the Nigerians.

If truth be told, the cameras needed only be trained on Maradona to tell the tale of the match.  Diego will never be one to portray the stern, stoic face of discipline, hiding by the sidelines. Rather, he paced his allotted touchline area as though he could barely restrain himself from running onto the pitch. The goal brought rapturous celebration, and he rode every subsequent near miss like they’d come off his own boot. Each foul brought expansive protest, each flash of brilliance a pirouette of applause.

Whilst Maradona was performing on the sidelines, a few other Argentines caught the eye. Rangy long haired right flanker Jonas Gutierrez has a face straight out of a Sergio Leone western. He looks born to be leaning on a post, hat brim lowered to conceal his darting eyes, conniving with Eli Wallach or Lee Van Cleef. Veteran midfielder Juan Veron could slip effortlessly into a role as a Bond villain when his playing days are over.

Despite this cast of characters, and the majority of possession, Argentina found the second half harder going. The substitution onto the field of Obafemi Martins added spark to the Nigerian attack, Enyeama continued to hold firm against Messi’s best efforts, and the prospect of an equaliser grew.

Taye Taiwo blasted just wide, then collapsed injured to the pitch. He was replaced by Kalu Uche, who with minutes remaining found himself alone and in possession just 12 yards out. Sadly, he couldn’t control the volley.

And thus it ended 1-0 to Argentina.

But for Enyeama’s man of the match efforts, Messi might have scored four. You suspect their highs could be high indeed.

But what of the lows? The Argentines’ didn’t wholly convince in defence. It is doubtful that Maradona will be a calming influence should difficulty present. You suspect stability could be an issue with the whole group.

But that is a pessimist’s view. Diego is hardly likely to be thinking in those terms. He hasn’t lived the life he has without dreaming very big dreams. If he can impart some of his genius on his charges, then anything may be possible. If he pulled this Cup off, you would fancy becoming President would be a formality. And wouldn’t that be another story altogether?

I’ll personally be hoping that Argentina advance deep into the tournament. At the Greatest Show On Earth, they just might prove to be the Hottest Ticket In Town.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. Peter Flynn says

    Nice JB.

    Maradona is looking a little like Saddam Hussein (cave hide-out version).

    Messi is going to make other defences look messy.

  2. JB – organised chaos – that’s Argentina. Really enjoyed the read. I wander what Maradona would think of Ross Lyon’s view of the world?

    Woke up this morning and saw that the Aussies were spanked. Too defensive is our beloved coach. You need to attack and take the game on. Looked what happened when the Aussies did that in 2006 – nearly pulled off a miracle.

  3. John Butler says

    Flynny, as usual, there’s something in what you say.

    Dips, Diego and Ross. They might represent the polar opposites when it comes to coaching world views.

    Perspiration vs inspiration?

  4. Pimm was hoping for 0-0. He got it half right, but Germany got 4.

  5. Ian Syson says

    Dips, I’ve heard of armchair analysis (that’s what I do) but making an assessment of a game from the land of nod is going a bit far isn’t it? ‘Defensive’ or ‘attacking’ just doesn’t cut it as the gamut of tactical options in soccer. In fact these terms are probably redundant.

    As a ludicrously optimistic type, I thought that we held our own in the second half until Cahill got sent off. We should have had a penalty just before that. At 1-2 with 11 men and 20 minutes to go, the prospects would have looked very different and who knows how the game might have finished?

    But the back four did look like old men and Neill had a shocker. If you’re going to play the offside trap, everyone has to play it!

  6. John Butler says


    Blind Freddy would have bet on Pim looking for a draw in this game. All past form pointed to that, as well the line-up he put on the park.

    You’re right that luck went against us with the penalty, but to be brutally honest, we seemed much better organised under Guus.

  7. Ian Syson says

    John, I agree on both points. But ‘better organised’ does not mean ‘more attacking’.

  8. Ian – my analysis came from reports I heard and read, and from Pim’s past form. He’s just that type of coach; constipated.

    I’d much rather we lost 8/2 having a go than 4/0 trying to defend.

  9. Ian Syson says

    0-4 is better than 2-8 in terms of goal difference. Footy thinking doesn’t apply to soccer unfortunately. Craig Foster’s latest book is instructive on this issue. His argument is that to play better soccer you need to play smarter and not harder.

    The German team looked impressive and the thing is they were not particularly aggressive or in a full-on attacking mode and they had their defensive priorities sorted out at the back. They played smart and were beautifully organised.

  10. Ian – I bow to superior knowledge. My soccer knowlege is rudimentary. But I hate teams that don’t play to win. I hate it in cricket and I hate it in soccer. The Aussies set themselves to draw at best. It doesn’t sit well with me, even though I acknowledge your point on goal differences.

  11. Ian Syson says

    Soccer teams play to be smarter than their opponents in the context of their relative abilities. Australia v Germany last night was the equivalent of say Coburg playing Collingwood. How would Coburg approach the game? Would they try for a shoot out or develop some tactical (slightly negative) approach. I guess it’s difficult to imagine in footy. The point is that the difficulty of scoring in soccer gives weaker team a chance if they play well to their strengths. It’s just that Pim got it Oh so wrong.

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