By Farid Omar.
As the qualifying for the FIFA 2010 World Cup slated for South Africa was winding down in the COMNEBOL, South American zone, Argentina's near peril of missing an automatic qualifying spot dominated soccer headlines from across the world.
Of course, a world cup without Argentina, a major soccer power house, would be unimaginable. Add this to the fact that Argentina is led by their beloved Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest soccer player to ever play the game, alongside Brazil's Pele. Worse still, Argentina boasts of the finest soccer player on the planet today in the name of Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona, the 2009 FIFA world player of the year
Last season, the Barcelona playmaker led his Barca team to an unprecedented six titles having won the Spanish La Liga and Copa Delray, UEFA's Champions League title, the Spanish and European Super Cups and the 2009 FIFA World Club Championship. But during the 2010 World Cup qualifying rounds, Messi has been but a shadow of himself, finding it difficult to click in an Argentine side bereft of ideas.
Since taking over, Argentina's overall competitive record under Maradona is four defeats and four wins, with 13 goals conceded and only ten scored. Certainly, this is a damning indictment for a man who has at his disposal, world class strikers like Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín and stalwart defenders in Javier Mascherano, Javier Zanetti and Gabriel Heinze.
The Messi factor has puzzled many in the soccer world. Ossie Ardiles, a world cup winner in 1978 and a former team mate of Diego Maradona recently said "It's another problem we have. How can we have the best player in the world and he cannot perform?" As Argentina precariously hung on a thread, Ardiles described his country’s prospect of missing out on South Africa 2010 as “catastrophe, disaster, unthinkable”.
In an embarrassing campaign, Maradona's Argentina suffered a humiliating 6-1 defeat at the hands of lowly Bolivia. The loss went into the records as Argentina's heaviest defeat in international soccer in 51 years. Maradona's shaky team also suffered a high profile 3-1 home defeat to arch rivals Brazil in Rosario.
Against all odds, Argentina finally emerged from the doldrums in its last two crucial qualifying matches, securing a last gasp 2-1 win against Peru and a late 1-0 decider away to Uruguay to clinch the fourth and last automatic qualifying spot for the COMNEBOL zone.
The less than inspiring qualifying campaign has important lessons for Argentina. First, Maradona is a living proof that being a world class player does not necessarily translate into being a great manager. For Argentina to do well in South Africa, Maradona should solicit the advice of Argentina's soccer legends, the likes of Mario Kempes, Ossie Ardiles and Daniel Passarella.
Another key problem is Maradona's inability to motivate and inspire his players. As a coach, Maradona must demand a 100 percent commitment from his players and adopt a no nonsense approach to the game. These, combined with correct tactics and team line-up, could elevate Argentina to its traditionally potent, technical and efficient game that has been the hallmark of its attractive soccer for decades.
At the peak of his career, Maradona had the ability to change the game by himself without having to depend on his coach or teammates. As a coach, Maradona should not approach the game the way a striker does. He should learn to draw a clear line between coaching and playing and focus on coach-driven tactics and techniques that can help deliver the game in his favour.
Apart from the media, most of Argentina's influential soccer personalities including former coaches, past and current soccer administrators and his former world cup team mates have mostly shied away from criticizing Maradona's tactics. This is understandable, given that Maradona enjoys a near deity status in Argentina.
For the interest of Argentine soccer, Maradona should not be immune from constructive criticism, and especially from the upper echelons of Argentine soccer that has the power and influence to shape the national team's fortunes.
His poor record at the qualifiers notwithstanding, Maradona can count on Messi, who in the eyes of many pundits, remains a playmaker of the highest calibre. Messi definitely has the opportunity to redeem himself in South Africa by guiding his team to world cup glory.
AC Milan and England’s David Beckham has heaped praise on Messi proclaiming that the Argentine is one of the best players he has ever seen. He went on to compare Messi’s trademark style to that of Maradona, saying “He’s the closest player to Maradona that you can get, and he even plays in a similar passionate way too”.
No doubt, Maradona remains one of the biggest names in the game and his iconic status in world soccer is unquestionable. With the right team selection, tactics and of course psychological and mental edge, Argentina under Maradona has the potential to take South Africa 2010 by storm and even secure its elusive third world cup title. By doing so, Maradona will earn the distinction of winning the world cup both as a player and manager.