Can Maradona work magic for Argentina?
They have outstanding players, but usually fail to live up to their potential. Glenn Moore on the task facing Diego Maradona, the new coach of football's great underachievers
The 1970 World Cup is remembered with great fondness in Brazil as the apogee of the joga bonito but across the border, in Argentina, it is best ignored.
The Mexico finals are the only time Argentina failed to qualify for a World Cup and while few expect them to miss out on South Africa in 2010 there is a growing nervousness about their qualifying campaign. Beaten in Chile and Colombia, held at home by Ecuador and Paraguay, with 13 goals scored in 10 matches, neither performances nor results have met expectation.
Although in the third of four automatic qualifying places, behind runaway leaders Paraguay and recovering Brazil, they have only a three-point cushion and face a tricky run-in. And now Diego Maradona, capricious, egocentric and inexperienced, is in charge. Is he really the man to end 22 years of perplexing failure at the global pinnacle since Maradona himself carried Argentina to glory on the pitch in the 1986 World Cup final?
It has been suggested that the difficulties experienced by his predecessor, Alfio Basile, were as much generational as tactical. The 65-year-old found it as difficult to tune into players who spend their spare time on PlayStation as a European-based squad did to respect a coach who some believed put as much emphasis on superstition as preparation. Maradona, who often gives the impression of never having grown up, should be closer to the players' wavelength, but he will still have to solve the tactical and personnel problems that dogged Basile.
Superficially it is hard to imagine how Argentina are struggling. This is one of the world's great football factories, winners of five of the last seven Fifa Under-20 World Cups with a current crop that includes Lionel Messi, Juan Roman Riquelme, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. That would seem to support Maradona's contention: "To those saying I don't have experience, I say that tactics are relative, the important thing is to have good players." None of the above, however, are defenders, and the forwards are all of a type: nimble, skilful, but small.
Defensively Argentina have not replaced Roberto Ayala. Javier Zanetti, once a great player, is 35 and fading, Martin Demichelis is struggling at Bayern, Gabriel Heinze is short of top drawer quality, Gabriel Milito is injured, Nicolas Burdisso is out of the Internazionale team. The only other defender in double-figure caps is Newcastle's Fabricio Coloccini.
There are also problems in goal while even the surfeit of riches further forward is not without complications. In midfield the issue is whether to play Riquelme. Basile believed in the playmaker and was usually rewarded. Maradona has indicated he is off the same mind but Riquelme does need the team to be built around him and when the 30-year-old is off-colour it struggles. In attack, the shadow of Gabriel Batistuta looms large. The only striker of five in Maradona's first squad, for tomorrow's match at Hampden Park, taller than 5ft 9in is German Denis. The 27-year-old has started a belated European career well at Napoli but has not impressed on his few international appearances.
So far Maradona's main act has been to drop Esteban Cambiasso and bring in three uncapped players, two defenders based in Argentina and a back-up goalkeeper, Sergio Romero of AZ Alkmaar.
With Messi, Riquelme and Juan Sebastian Veron all unavailable because of agreements with their clubs, tomorrow's match against Scotland can only provide some hints as to the direction Maradona wishes to take the team. He has said he will pick the players in form, though given they all play in Europe that will mean a lot of flying or many hours watching television and DVDs.
He has time, but not many matches, before qualifying resumes in March with a double header. That consists of Venezuela at home, which ought to be a formality, followed by a tricky trip to high altitude to face a Bolivian team that inflicted Paraguay's only defeat in qualification to date.
Everywhere, of course, he will be accompanied by a media circus akin to that which has followed his every move in Glasgow. Whether that proves a distraction to the team, or helps them relax by diverting the spotlight to their coach, only time will tell.
As interesting as the debate about whether Maradona can lead the albiceleste to glory, is the question of what philosophy he will adopt. This is not just a matter of the style, it is also about the attitude. He has said "we must show our traditions and our style on the field." The question is, which tradition? The butcher or the artist? Maradona has said he wants to play good football but it remains to be seen whether such an ideal survives the pressures of competition.
Recently, Argentina have become the darlings of football's cognoscenti. There was great sadness at their exit from the 2006 World Cup after their bewitching earlier football, notably the famous 26-pass goal against Serbia. Their defeat to a pragmatic Brazil in the 2007 Copa America was also lamented. Similarly, in 1978, the football of the Ossie Ardiles and Mario Kempes-inspired World Cup-winning team was widely admired. Argentine football has also produced the likes of Alfredo di Stefano, Omar Sivori and, of course, Riquelme, Messi and Maradona.
However, at other times Argentine football has been despised as cynical and brutal. During the 1966 World Cup finals, the national team was described as "animals" by Sir Alf Ramsey. Either side of the tournament the violence of club sides Racing and Estudiantes brought the World Club Championship, between the winners of the European Cup and the Copa Libertadores, into such disrepute many European winners refused to play their South American counterparts. "A footballer risks his career against the Argentinians," said Nereo Rocca, coach of a battered Milan side in 1969.
The 1990 team which reached the World Cup final was another ugly side with one player sent off in the semi-final and two in the final. The common link between these eras is Carlos Bilardo. He was singled out as one of the most notorious Estudiantes players in the vicious 1968 World Club Championship tie with Manchester United, butting Nobby Stiles with the back of his head among various assaults.
Antonio Rattin, the man dismissed against England in the 1966 World Cup, later said of Bilardo: "He was sneaky, always up to something. He'd pull your shirt, pretend to be hit, anything. He was always over the line and you get to the point where it wears you out."
Bilardo was also manager of the 1990 World Cup side (and, it should be noted, the 1986 winners). He explained his approach thus: "Football is played to win. Shows are for the cinema, for the theatre. Being second is a failure."
The relevance of this is that Bilardo is Maradona's management mentor, and has been appointed technical director in the new regime. As a player Maradona suffered more than most from savage tackling but was not averse to a spot of gamesmanship. In the modern game, the brutal excesses of the past are difficult to perpetrate unchecked but we nevertheless wait to see whether Maradona directs his team to play like angels or devils.
World Cup form since 1986
*Italy 1990 Lost 1-0 to Germany in the final after a hotly disputed Andreas Brehme penalty. Beat hosts Italy on penalties in the semi-finals
*USA 1994 Knocked-out in the group stage. Although they beat Nigeria 2-1 and Greece 4-0, they missed out after losing 2-0 to Bulgaria in the final game, which also saw the end of Diego Maradona's international career after he failed a doping test
*France 1998 Lost 2-1 to the Netherlands in the quarter-finals after
topping their group with wins against Japan, Jamaica and Croatia. Defeated England on penalties after a 2-2 draw in the second round
*Korea/Japan 2002 Knocked-out at the group stage, after victory over Nigeria, defeat to England and a draw with Sweden
*Germany 2006 Lost in the quarter-finals on penalties after a 1-1 draw with the hosts. Impressively thrashed Serbia & Montenegro 6-0, beat Ivory Coast 2-1 and drew 0-0 with the Netherlands in their group. Defeated Mexico 2-1 after extra time in the second round, with Maxi Rodriguez scoring the goal of the tournament
*Fifa Under-20 World Cup They are the most successful team in history with six titles in 16 tournaments