Mascherano is captain, but Messi must play the Maradona role
When Carlos Bilardo began his job as Argentina coach in January 1983, the first thing he did was to visit Maradona in Spain where he was playing for Barcelona.
Bilardo told Maradona he wanted him as Argentina’s captain, that he was the only player sure of his place and that he would build a team around him to win the World Cup.
Maradona, who had had an unhappy first World Cup in Spain six months earlier, reacted by promising himself nothing would stand in their way.
“The first thing I resolved in that moment was to create something, a conscience: to play for the national team had to be the most important thing in the world,” he said many years later in his autobiography.
“If we had to travel thousands and thousands of kilometres, do it; if we had four matches in a week, play them; if we had to stay in little hotels that were falling apart, accept it…Everything, everything for the national team, for the blue and white.
“That was the style I wanted to transmit.”
Maradona became a pioneer in trans-Atlantic commuting to play for Argentina, something dozens of South Americans, and rather reluctantly their European clubs, now take for granted to turn out for their national teams in World Cup qualifying matches.
It did not happen right away because Maradona, having moved on to Napoli, risked sanctions from the Italian football authorities for skipping club training sessions and even Serie A games.
Maradona would surely have won a lot more than his 91 caps if he had played some of Bilardo’s 24 first matches in charge and captained the side more than 57 times. He went nearly three years without playing for his country, from the loss to Brazil in the World Cup on July 2, 1982, in Barcelona, to his first match under Bilardo, a friendly with Paraguay in Buenos Aires on May 9, 1985.
However, once qualifying in South America, not the 18-match marathon it is now, got under way that year, he was there leading the team…and the rest is a well-known chapter or two in history.
Maradona is not placing the same responsibilities he shouldered on to one member of Argentina’s present generation of players.
He has told Javier Mascherano that he wants him to captain Argentina, but he also met with Lionel Messi during his European tour last week for, no doubt, he sees Barcelona’s wonder kid as the player who can embody his inspirational game on the pitch.
Messi goes into the 2010 World Cup, assuming Argentina qualify, with a similar background to Maradona’s pre-1986, both with a World Youth Cup victory under their belts followed by frustration in the senior tournament.
Messi was the substitute Argentines wanted to see unleashed on Germany’s two tall and lumbering central defenders during the second half of the 2006 quarter-final in Berlin. Coach Jose Pekerman had other ideas, Germany equalised and then won the penalty shootout.
A Maradona-like resurrection would put Messi and Argentina on top of the world in 2010.
PHOTO: Messi emulates Diego Maradona’s “hand of god” goal with an equaliser against city rivals Espanyol, Barcelona, June 9, 2007. REUTERS/Albert Gea