Diego Maradona the Puzzle as Argentina's Pieces Start To Come Together

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Diego Maradona the Puzzle as Argentina's Pieces Start To Come Together
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It’s an adage that is regularly—and often, it must be said, lazily—trotted out every four years.

In a World Cup year, players will always perform better.

The reality, it must be hoped, is that players are paid enough to perform to the best of their abilities at all times, not just when an invite to one of the biggest tournaments in world sport is tantalisingly up for grabs.

And 99 per cent of the time, that is the case.

Indeed, if anything, it is a myth both fostered and highlighted by the media, keen to devote column inches to any player who starts making waves with a series of eye-catching performances.

But, like any widely accepted maxim, perhaps there is some core truth to it. And if that truth is to be found anywhere this year, it is in Argentina. To put it simply, players from the South American country are lighting up leagues across the globe as they look to state their case for inclusion on the stage everyone wants to grace.

Nowhere is that more evident than among their strike-force, where manager Diego Maradona finds himself with the pick of the best and most in-form strikers from the three big leagues in Europe.

To start in an obvious place, Lionel Messi is one of the best players in the world, and has only reinforced that assessment with 16 goals and eight assists in his 18 La Liga games for Barcelona—the team he led to Champions League (and domestic) success last season.

And at the Catalan giant’s biggest rival, Real Madrid, Messi’s compatriot Gonzalo Higuain has been busy playing his way into top form. Higuain has overcome the scepticism of his managers with both club and country to force his way into contention despite constantly competing against more high-profile names.

Having played—and scored—on his belated international debut at the death of Argentina’s World Cup qualifying campaign, he has found favour with Maradona at just the right time. The 22-year-old’s latest strike for his club (his 12th in 16 league games this term) in a win against Espanyol only serves to highlight the level he has now reached.

Across the capital with Atletico Madrid, Sergio Aguero is another near shoo-in for the World Cup squad, and not just because he is Maradona’s son-in-law (and father to Diego’s grandson). The 21-year-old may only have eight goals in his 18 appearances this term, but injuries have marred some of his campaign.

Many of Argentina’s best forwards might ply their trade in Spain, but they are not exclusive to the country. In Italy Diego Milito is proving himself to be the rapier blade of Inter Milan’s attack, even managing to outshine the often-injured Samuel Eto’o, with 14 goals already in what is traditionally a low-scoring league.

And in England, Carlos Tevez has taken to life with Manchester City by becoming one of the most prolific strikers in the country (13 goals in 23 games).

Of the aforementioned names, perhaps only Lionel Messi would be considered among the world's truly elite forwards (and as current Ballon d’Or holder, he’d probably be No. 1) but no other national side can currently match the sheer depth of options.

Such a variety of choice can be both a blessing and a curse, and it is ironic that the important job of selecting the 23-men best suited to the job of bringing the World Cup back to South America is given to the man likeliest to make an unpredictable hash of it, Maradona.

The four-time World Cup player selected 49 different players during qualifying, a phenomenal total that aptly sums up the instability and unpredictability of their route to South Africa.

It also effectively illustrates the imbalance to his options, with his wealth of attacking options—where the likes of Martin Palermo, Hernan Jorge Crespo, Lisandro Lopez, Ezequiel Lavezzi and even Gonzalo Bergessio are also competing for opportunities—masking a deficiency in quality in other positions, where the manager has had to search far and wide for the best solutions.

The goalkeeping berths are still a problem, for example, with many inexperienced candidates vying for duty. And defensively, beyond Gabriel Milito (Diego’s brother and Messi’s Barca team-mate) and—at a stretch—Bayern’s Martin Demichelis, a reliance on the likes of veteran campaigners like Gabriel Heinze and inexperienced home-grown players such as Nicolas Otamendi suggests that they might need to score lots of goals to make up for the ones they concede when Group B kicks-off in June.

But almost without exception, even the players in those positions are doing all they can to make their case. Juan Carrizo (Real Zaragoza), Mariano Andujar (Catania) and Sergio Romero (AZ, who seems to have Maradona's backing) are making the race for the No. 1 jersey at least vaguely interesting, while further outfield the likes of Emiliano Insua (Liverpool), Christian Ansaldi (Rubin Kazan), Angel di Maria (Benfica), Diego Perotti (Sevilla), Javier Pastore (Palermo) and the once-maligned Ever Banega (Valencia) are all performing well for their clubs to force as much competition as possible in areas where the national squad might be considered weak.

Such is the quality available to Maradona, the long-time saviour of Argentine football, Juan Roman Riquelme, is out of favour and—beyond the support of a few players—fighting an uphill battle to get back into contention.

As a result of all the competition, for now Messi is one of just three names Maradona has publicly committed to his World Cup squad—alongside defensive fulcrum, not to mention captain, Javier Mascherano and artful distributor Juan Sebastian Veron—although the man capped 91 times as a player believes he already knows “60 per cent” of his final 23-man squad.

While his selection methods have been much criticized both at home and abroad, the outspoken 49-year-old is adamant he will not be changing his approach as the main event draws nearer.

"No matter what anyone says, I will continue to experiment," Maradona told Reuters last month, after a shadow squad beat Costa Rica 3-2 in a friendly.

And perhaps his methods have played some part in getting so many of his potential squad to now show themselves to the best of their ability.

"I've already got some names in my head that I regard as certain, but whether they go or not will depend on their form, whether they're playing for their clubs or not," he warned.

"There are still lots of things to assess before submitting the squad."

With months to go before events kick-off in South Africa, then, all players are confident there is the possibility they could still play their way into contention.

And Maradona needs his best players to be at the best, because the stakes for the Albicelestes are unusually high. Not only is the World Cup up for grabs—a prize possession that Maradona the player was the last to lift, in 1986—but also the opportunity for the national squad to recover the respect and love of a football-mad nation.

The unimpressive nature of Argentina’s qualification—they were beaten by both Chile and Paraguay in the South American table, and only a last-minute improvement in form confirmed a berth to the big show (the culmination of which led Maradona, vindicated somewhat after months of criticism, to list to the country’s journalists the many depraved ways they could go relieve themselves—a shocking outburst for which he received a FIFA ban).

Indeed, such is the general antipathy toward the national team after their poor qualification showing that it was US Open tennis champion Juan Martin del Potro—and not Messi—who was last year voted sportsman of the year by a country that is as football-orientated as any on the planet.

Indeed, Messi has become something of a hate figure in his homeland, as his perceived lack of hunger in national matches compared to domestic games has led him to be nicknamed "pecho frio" ("cold chest"—someone who doesn’t care) by the media and fans alike.

It is criticism that has rankled with Messi:

"I get annoyed when they say that I don't feel the Albiceleste [jersey]," Messi told Spanish daily El Pais at the time.

"Nothing makes me angrier than them to tell me that I'm not an Argentine. What do they know about my emotions?

"Life took me to Barcelona. As a child, I dreamed about playing in the Argentine first division, to put on the Albiceleste; nothing gives me more motivation. I think like an Argentine and I live in Catalonia, but I feel very Argentine.

“I get annoyed when they treat me like I'm not an Argentine."

While Messi has been the focus of most abuse, the rest of the squad have hardly been exempt. It even led Tevez to threaten to quit the national set-up last year:

“When I play for Argentina I spend more time suffering than enjoying myself. The fans insulted us, the journalists criticised everything,” he told the Guardian.

“Sometimes I think about quitting the national team. Why should I come to Argentina and have a bad time?”

As Maradona struggled to steer his country to World Cup qualification, exposing his tactical naivety on more than one occasion, the most optimistic of fans and foreign observers attempted to draw parallels between their current troubles and the Brazil side of 2002. Back then the Selecao had a similarly unimpressive path to the World Cup—but once there, inspired by Ronaldo, they went on to win the whole thing.

With so many players reaching top form, perhaps such comparisons are not so fanciful, even if Maradona is keen to play down such expectations.

"My Argentina are not the favourites for the next World Cup. We still have to work a lot before we can be put into that category," he warned recently, according to Goal.com.

But with the players seemingly more than willing to put in that work, especially with driven by a desire to disprove the criticism, ultimately it might be down to the unpredictable Maradona whether or not the team can fulfil such an achievement, and in the process win back the full support of a national that both demands and desires success.

If he can mould his players into a cohesive unit, and find a tactical system that truly suits them, the man who was so unpredictable as a player might yet provide the stable framework for a famous success.

That is the goal for his star player, one of many who have been labelled "Maradona's heir" but perhaps the first who has come close to fulfilling such a prophecy. Winning the World Cup would confirm Messi's coronation.

"Hopefully I can pick up my game with the national team," the 22-year-old confirmed to Argentine daily Olé at the end of 2009.

"That's what I want most. The only way to improve from what we did this year is by being world champions with the national team."

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