Now is not a particularly good time to be an Argentinian football supporter. Not only have their most loathed opposition – Brazil and England – already qualified for the finals of the 2010 World Cup, but there is a serious likelihood that the Albiceleste themselves might not even qualify for next year’s tournament in South Africa, and coach Diego Maradona is receiving hitherto unprecedented criticism in his home country. Argentina haven’t failed to qualify for the World Cup finals since 1970, but with just two matches left to play they sit in fifth place in the CONMEBOL group (a position that would see them play off over two legs against the fourth placed North American team), and there aren’t even any guarantees that they will hold onto that lofty a position.
Eyebrows raised by the Argentinian Football Association’s decision to give the coach’s position to Diego Maradona were tempered by his status in the country. Maradona’s lengendary status has risen to the extent that he has become a one man cult in himself, and it seems likely that some have allowed his former abilities as a player to cloud their view of his status as a manager. What we know for certain is that his spell as the coach of the Argentina national side will be remembered as possibly the most disastrous in the recent history of the game in the country. Argentina, we should remember, started the last World Cup finals in Germany amongst the favourites to win the competition and even their quarter-final defeat at the hands of the hosts was considered to be something of a surprise. They remain a team packed with talented players, but shambolic recent performances have led to a team that looks rudderless and completely bereft of any confidence.
Last weekend they were beaten 3-1 at home by Brazil in Rosario. Brazil took the lead after twenty-three minutes when some woeful defending from a free-kick left Luisão completely unmarked, seven yards out to head the ball past the Argentine goalkeeper Mariano Andujar. The visitors doubled their lead seven minutes later when more rash tackling brought the Brazilians a free kick thirty-five yards from goal. Kaka’s optimistic free-kick was turned back into the path of Maicon. His shot was parried by Andujar but Luis Fabiano tapped the ball over the line from a couple of yards out with the home defence again standing around like statues. Argentina did pull a goal back midway through the second half through Jesus Datolo, but any hopes of a revival were dashed when Luis Fabiano ran onto a sumptuous through-ball from Kaka and chipped the ball over the onrushing Andujar to wrap the game up.
On Wednesday night, things went from bad to worse for Maradona and Argentina. Asuncion is a tricky place to visit for a World Cup qualifier at the best of times, and an Argentina team that looked little more orderly than it had at the weekend were sunk by a single first half goal from Borussia Dortmund’s Nélson Haedo Váldez. The result confirmed Paraguay’s qualification for the finals in second place behind Brazil, but has left Argentina with some soul searching to do before the final pair of matches, which are to be played over four days next month. On the tenth of October, they have a home match against Peru, who are currently bottom of the ten team group, but the following week they have to travel to Montevideo to play Uruguay in the final group match. Uruguay are in sixth place in the group, and travel to Ecuador (who are fourth) on the tenth. With only two points between these three sides (and Venezuela, who are seventh and on the same points as Uruguay), any two of the four sides could yet qualify.
At a post-Paraguay interview, Maradona said that, “”We’ve qualified via play-offs in the past and nobody died”, which is hardly a statement that fills anyone in Argentina with much confidence. The fourth place in the CONCACAF qualifying group is currently held by Costa Rica, but it could yet be Mexico that the fifth placed South Americans have to play – Mexico are currently second in the group, but are only three points above Costa Rica with two games left to play – or even, theoretically, the USA (although this would require the Americans to lose both of their remaining matches). On current form, though, even a play-off spot against Honduras or Costa Rica would by no means be a guarantee of a place in the finals. Argentina have now lost four of their last five matches, including a 6-1 defeat in Bolivia, a match which first drew attention to Maradona’s eccentricity when he didn’t send the players to La Paz early to acclimatise to the infamous thin air of the Estadio Hernando Siles Zuazo.
There are several likely reasons for Argentina’s fall from grace, but the buck ultimately stops with Maradona. Some of his team selections have bordered on the bizarre and lack of tactical acumen as a coach has been obvious from the very nature of some of the goals that Argentina have been conceding. Whilst the appeal of having him run the national team is obvious, but the old argument that “he was a great player, therefore he must be a great manager” is one of the oldest tricks in the football book to fall for, to an extent that it seems surprising that the AFA fell for it. It remains as likely as not that Argentina will still qualify for the World Cup finals, but it certainly seems that qualification will be merely papering over the cracks. Should they get there, what is the prognosis for what they will do in the finals if Maradona is still in charge with his current set up, and would they sack him if they qualify? These are tricky questions, and one fancies that Maradona’s ego will not like the answers very much.