No-one has done it single-handedly before. And whatever Lionel Messi achieves during the rest of his football career, nothing will surpass his transformation of Argentina – and one managed by “dirty” Diego to boot – into the good guys in the English media. One unfortunate side-effect of this astonishing volte face is that there’s only one team around when Argentina play – Maradona’s tactical deficiencies serve as the opposition. And on the BBC, “is it a case of how many?” is a rhetorical question about Argentina v. Greece, even though it’s virtually an Argentine second-string.
Greece don’t even get a mention until Hansen announces that after they played Nigeria they were declared “officially” useless. And this was a game Greece won. The suggestion was made during Argentina/South Korea that somebody might try to man-mark Messi. But that game was live on ITV, and Shearer and Hansen obviously weren’t watching, while new boy on the panel Harry Redknapp didn’t even know what country he was in – referring to last year’s South African Confederations Cup as being played “out there.” And to be fair, it is six whole years since Greece employed the tactics they use tonight to… WIN… THE…EUROPEAN… CHAMPIONSHIPS… “They’ve killed the game,” notes Hansen, clearly not a fan of defending when it’s done against the lovely Lionel (another landmark achievement).
The panel tell us at half-time that Greece are making it difficult for Argentina, that they’re well-organised and reliant on the lone striker. All stuff they should have told us before kick-off. They’re angry because Greece are spoiling the expected spectacle. But they’re angrier because Greece are making fools of them. The Greeks look like they’ve vowed not to shave while they’re still in the tournament. You sense that there’s little chance of them turning into a ZZ Top convention. But during the first half they defend really well. Co-commentator Mick McCarthy should be delighted, but even he’s fallen for Messi (a hat-trick for the little man). Messi is being man-marked very well indeed by Socrates Papastathopoulos (“could they not put Smith on him?” asks McCarthy). Lineker later praises Messi’s patience, but he is clearly irked, especially after Papastathopoulos takes him out at the knee on 22 minutes and only gets a “no more” gesture from the otherwise sound referee.
If you’ve ever wondered what Neil Ruddock would look like with a pony-tail… then you’re a nutter. But Greek centre-half Sotirios Kyrgiankos provides the answer, as Greece’s “two banks of four” quickly mutate into “one bank of ten” (Hansen). Georgios Samaras is Greece’s lone striker. “It’s going to be hard work for Samaras,” notes commentator Steve Wilson, who clearly hasn’t seen Celtic play recently. Samaras does chase lost causes, but not the retrievable ones that such as Tevez get correctly praised for. At half-time there’s a few clips of Maradona in the dug-out, apparently going through his looney tunes. But the clips merely show a manager applauding his team, concerned about the opposition’s defending and complaining about their time-wasting. If the BBC want footage of a manager going mad, there’s plenty from last Friday night and the Italian chap with the glasses who isn’t Marcello Lippi.
The paucity of Greek ambition makes you forget Euro 2004. And Samaras should provide a reminder just after half-time when he’s faced with a prone Sergio Romero, six yards in front of him, in the Argentine goal. If Samaras toe-pokes the ball straight ahead, it’s Greece v England in the quarters. But he tries to lash it in the far corner and misses…and it’s the stuff of Nike ads. Greece aren’t about to attack again, even though by now South Korea’s 2-1 lead over Nigeria leaves Greece needing two goals to qualify. As they continue to play for a draw that will see them on the proverbial flight home, the camera hones in on a disgruntled OAP standing up, putting his coat on and heading home early, to miss the traffic…except it’s Otto Rehhagel himself, the architect of what is increasingly looking like his side’s downfall.
Nigeria equalise, leaving Greece needing one goal again. But they’re still not going for it, unlike Argentina, who only need a draw. Mario Bolatti thumps a shot into Greek keeper Alexandros Tzorvas’s stomach. Tzorvas keeps the ball but loses almost every breath in his body. McCarthy is, harshly, unimpressed: “they have shots like that fired into them in training every day,” which explains Wolves’ poor scoring record last season. It’s all soon irrelevant as the woeful Martin Dimichelis heads a corner against the previously anonymous Diego Milito and “clumps it home” (Wilson) from the rebound. It does become a case of how many, even as Maradona looks to give his entire squad a game. And his most controversial selection, 92-year-old striker Martin Palermo, side-foots home the second after a now-liberated Messi fires a shot at Tzorvas – having whacked a post moments earlier.
The Argentine bench celebrate wildly. One tall Argentine official’s job seems to be to catch the airborne Maradona in mid-celebration before he gets impaled on a vuvuvzela in the third row of the crowd. And he pulls off a particularly good catch after this goal…never is Maradona happier than when he feels vindicated. And Palermo himself is so happy his wig nearly falls off (well it’s either a wig or Palermo was a fan of Mark Lester in “Oliver” – and if I was Palermo, I’d admit to the wig). Maradona struts around the technical area like a modern-day Mussolini waiting for the applause. While Rehhagel wears what looks suspiciously like a satisfied grin as the final whistle goes, perhaps thinking that if there’s a day to knock your country out of the World Cup through tactical paralysis, the day France go home in utter disgrace is probably the one. It’s Argentina v. Mexico in the last 16, just like Germany 2006, when they produced just about the game of the tournament. Expect more of the same from the teams, and more “Messi must score” from the team in the BBC studio.