“There’s enough material here for an entire conference,” said the psychiatrist in the Fawlty Towers episode entitled, funnily enough, ‘The Psychiatrist.’ Argentine coach Diego Armando Maradona, we are told, is a modern day Basil Fawlty. A six-one loss to Bolivia, selected 107 players, scraping through to the finals, picking his 36-year-old mate who hadn’t played for Argentina this century, not picking Esteban Cambiasso…or any full-backs, or getting the best out of Lionel Messi. That’s been the narrative.
The reality was high altitude in Bolivia, a mix of Argentine A & B teams, “scraping” through by the considerable feat of winning in Uruguay, his 36-year-old mate, Martin Palermo getting the winner against Peru which set up the chance in Uruguay. And he’s not the first national coach not to get the “best” out of Messi (although Messi’s display against Nigeria looked pretty “best” to me). The lack of Cambiasso and full-backs I’ll let you have. But is Maradona as mad as they say, or does it all stem back to one handball incident on 22nd June 1986?
His last press conference before this South Korea game was reportedly gave credence to his “mad as they say” theory. But, in truth, the reality was little more than the usual pro-Argentina, anti-Pele rhetoric with a little added Platini, both in response to criticisms they made of him. There was some stuff about the Jabulani ball which, I think you’ll find, others have also mentioned in passing. He did bang on a bit about Messi. But so have the journos asking him the questions. And his comments about South Korea were respectful: “they have a good team, they don’t have a Messi,” which, outside the narrow confines of Park Ji-Sung’s immediate family and more enthusiastic groupies, is regarded as… well… true.
Come game time, it’s obvious that South Korea don’t have a Higuain, Tevez, De Maria or Aguero either. And Argentina don’t have a defender at all after Samuel goes off, which makes this game livelier than it might have been, and promises to make every Argentina game a tightrope. South Korea’s right-back is called Oh which, with Peter Drury’s commentary style, always comes out as an expression of surprise. Germany’s and Ghana’s Boateng brothers were earmarked as the first opposing siblings in a World Cup finals. But Argentina appear to have a Gutierr-Oh at full-back today. Until Drury reveals his full name to be Gutierr-OhDearWhataWaste as the hapless hairy shanks another ball into touch.
OhDearWhataWaste later receives his second booking of the tournament, which means he misses the next group game. Argentina’s odds immediately shorten by two points. South Korea are defensive to the point of frightened in the first half. When commentator Peter Drury talks of “all bar one” player in the Korean half, it is both clever product placement and the result of South Korea’s inertia. They would buy a 2-1 half-time scoreline but get it for free thanks to the other execrable long-hair at the back for Argentina, Martin Dimichelis, who provides the tournament’s first genuine “after you, Claude” moment, from which Claude Lee Chung-Yong scores. Argentina are Alan Hansen’s wet dream, all “pass and move” and, as Hansen himself says “defensively, mmmmmm…”
Maradona blesses himself furiously in the quickest-ever decade of the rosary, mocked by Andy Townsend back in the studio as “religious tourettes.” I’m sure Townsend would be just as brave in insulting Islam. After half-time Argentina don’t look initially perturbed by Dimichelis’s generosity. But South Korea have a spell and blow a great chance to make it 2-2 after a fabulous move as slick as anything Messi and co produced earlier. Maradona “stalks the technical area, all menacing and mischievous,” according to Drury. But the numerous pictures we see suggest he just looks nervous and has a beard. He’s later “all passion and superstition,” – Jim Beglin gently reminds Drury that the latter is actually religion. Don’t expect any “Mecca’s that way” comments from Drury at any future Algerian games.
In fact, Maradona makes a game-changer of a substitution. Tevez, who has run to Buenos Aires and back in his inimitable style, is replaced by Maradona’s son-in-law, who is also, by the way, Sergio Aguero. Aguero and Messi combine superbly twice for Higuain to get his second and third goals and increase his transfer value by about ten million euros, which when you add up their total distance from goal, is about two million euros-per-yard. Aguero then nearly scores a spectacular goal with the very last move of the match, which is appropriate because he’s been sensational, albeit against tired, dispirited opposition.
Argentina are all but through, possibly to a tasty last 16 meeting with Uruguay – Mascherano against Perez in the centre of that midfield could be fascinating, if short-lived. South Korea are good enough to follow them, today’s partial stage-fright surely only a one-off (unless their goalie dives out of the way of goalbound free-kicks like Greece’s keeper has just done). Back in the studio, Edgar Davids reckons Argentina didn’t create that many chances. But ITV are “off to the England camp” before the stunned silence takes hold. And I’m off to the BBC.