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Lionel Messi, no longer the forlorn figure of the South American qualifiers, might have been back with the under-20s such was his influence and sheer enjoyment in Argentina’s opening World Cup match.
Messi’s demeanour and mood at Argentina’s World Cup base in South Africa is a world away from what it was at their training camp outside Buenos Aires during the qualifiers last year.
The warmth that was lacking as Messi, a genius for Barcelona but almost a passenger for Argentina, contemplated the criticism from his fellow Argentines over a perceived lack of commitment in the light blue and white stripes, has enveloped him at the University of Pretoria.
“He is being spoilt,” was the comment his mother Celia made to the sports daily Ole over the attention given to Messi by coach Diego Maradona, room mate Juan Sebastian Veron and the rest of the squad.
If it hadn’t been for Nigeria’s goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, the 1-0 defeat to Argentina could have been much worse for the African side. That is one reason why the Nigerian supporter contingent, even if outnumbered by the Argentinian fans, remained upbeat throught the match.
The green-white-green stripes of the Nigerian flag were seen on toddlers, their parents and even foreigners at Ellis Park Stadium in central Johannesburg.
Diego Maradona, whose “Hand of God” goal and wonderful slalom against England in 1986 are among the most iconic images of any World Cup, emerged the undoubted victor with his astonishing touchline sideshow compared to England coach Fabio Capello’s unhappy performance.
Diego Maradona’s appeal for fair play has had certain sections of the British media sniggering like naughty school boys.
They find it amusing that, 24 years on, the man who scored the so-called “Hand of God” goal at the 1986 World Cup and is now coach of Argentina could himself make such a request. One television reporter from a well-known cable channel openly labelled Maradona a cheat.
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Carlos Tevez has quickly gained the love of supporters wherever he has played, first at Boca Juniors, then Corinthians, now in the Premier League, with his never-say-die attitude added to considerable ball skills.
On Monday in Buenos Aires, he played as if he were facing Brazil in the World Cup finals and not Canada in a friendly. He chased and harried for 70 minutes, laid on the second goal in a 5-0 win for Maxi Rodriguez, passed to Angel Di Maria for his celestial third goal of the night and got on the scoresheet himself.
Lionel Messi’s hat-trick for Barcelona last weekend has once again sparked the debate in Argentina over his indifferent form for his country.
“Messi is unhappy in the national team,” former World Cup-winning defender Oscar Ruggeri told the local America TV broadcaster.
Even Diego Maradona’s harshest critics, including Cesar Luis Menotti, recognised that they saw an improvement in Argentina’s defence in last week’s 1-0 win over Germany and some sort of shape to the team.
But Menotti, the coach who steered Argentina to their first World Cup title in 1978, does not like what he sees with Maradona at the helm for this year’s finals in South Africa.
After the century of call-ups and largely meaningless tests against mediocre opposition in friendlies, not to mention the lack of direction in the qualifiers, talent and form look set to win out in the race for places in Argentina’s World Cup squad.
Most if not all 20 of the players picked by Diego Maradona for the warm-up against Germany in Munich on March 3 would appear to have booked their ticket to Argentina’s Pretoria World Cup base in June.
Diego Maradona is in danger of demeaning as a coach the light blue and white Argentine stripes he graced and worshipped as a player.
As Velez Sarsfield’s Victor Zapata put it recently using an in-vogue term for all things of little substance: “Now it’s very ‘light’ getting to the national team.”