Maradona must unleash heir to lift the world cup

Image of Simon Kuper

Lionel Messi was taking a penalty in the world cup final. Some mortal penalty-takers wait until the keeper dives, then score in the other corner. Messi merely waited for Nigeria’s goalkeeper to shift his weight on to one leg, then scored in the other corner.

The midget with the flowerpot hairdo looked as if he had won a children’s competition to spend an afternoon playing for Argentina against Jon Obi Mikel’s Nigeria. However, whenever he touched the ball, everyone thought of an earlier Argentinian. “Maradona!” exclaimed Chelsea’s scout Piet de Visser, sitting next to me. The awards ceremony afterwards was comical. First Messi lifted the world cup. Then the tournament’s highest scorer was called forward: Messi. Then came the award for best player: Messi again.

OK, it was only the youth world cup of 2005. However, watching Messi score four against Arsenal on Tuesday, you realise that Argentina’s chances of lifting the real thing on July 11 are much better than commonly thought. The pessimism about Argentina is based on irrelevancies. They have the main thing you need at a world cup: the best player.

People say Argentina were appalling in the qualifying rounds. However, that’s immaterial. The qualifiers test a team’s keenness against mediocre opponents years before the tournament. There’s little correlation between how teams qualify and how they perform at a world cup. For Argentina, there’s probably no correlation at all. They played 18 qualifying matches in South America, which meant endless transatlantic flights for their many players based in Europe. Weaker South American teams with fewer players in Europe don’t have that problem. Brazil has that problem, but it has a larger pool of good footballers than Argentina.

To quote Carlos Bilardo, Argentina’s manager when they stumbled through qualifying for the world cup of 1986: “The qualifiers are harder than the world cup.” In April 1986 even Argentina’s president was lobbying for Bilardo’s sacking. Two months later Bilardo – or rather his captain, Diego Maradona – won the world cup.

Maradona, who is now Argentina’s coach, doesn’t need to be a genius. He just needs to field a genius. In modern world cups, the team that arrives with the acknowledged best player on earth usually reaches at least the final. Argentina won with Maradona, Brazil with Pele in 1970, France with Zinedine Zidane in 1998, Brazil with Ronaldo in 2002.

The reason is nanotechnology. In the last few rounds of world cups, defences are so tight that only a genius can find space. This year Argentina have a cakewalk to the quarterfinals; the strongest team they could face before then are post-Zidane France. Once in the last eight, Messi has three games to find space. This means the coach must subordinate everything to the genius. In 1986, Bilardo let Maradona do as he liked, including staying up all night. The coach told Maradona’s biographer, Jimmy Burns: “I said to myself, there’s Maradona and there’s the rest of the team.”

Maradona knows his job is to unleash Messi’s genius. He has never displayed a trace of jealousy towards his successor. “I’ve seen the guy who will inherit my place in Argentinian football,” he said of Messi in 2005. Now he says that if Messi wins this world cup, “the Maradona-Pele polemic” will finally end as everyone agrees on who is the best ever.

True, every formation Maradona has tried with Argentina has failed. Perhaps he should follow Barca’s coach Pep Guardiola’s lead, who moved Messi nearer the penalty area.

True, Barcelona creates more opportunities for Messi than Argentina will. However, as Messi has shown while scoring 15 goals in the past month, he’s quite capable of creating his own opportunities. Nor does the Argentine shirt weigh on him. In 2008 he won Olympic gold, again against the poor Nigerians.

There’s Messi, and there’s the rest of the team. Maradona knows how that works.

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