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Argentina vs. Brazil: Maradona can't stop talking about it

Saturday's big World Cup qualifying match is approaching. As his team gets ready to run onto the field, Argentina's coach runs off at the mouth.

September 04, 2009|Grahame L. Jones

It was about six weeks ago that Diego Armando Maradona started talking nonstop, and he is still at it.

If volubility is a sign of nervousness, then Argentina's national soccer coach is running scared -- and for good reason.

In the most important of the 40 World Cup qualifying matches being played worldwide this weekend, Argentina hosts Brazil in Rosario on Saturday. It is a match Maradona's team has to win -- both for the prestige and for the points.

Only the top four teams from South America are guaranteed a spot at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Going into this weekend, Brazil is in first place in the standings and Argentina is in fourth.

An Argentine defeat would leave Maradona's team possibly facing a fifth-place finish and a potentially tricky two-game playoff series with a team from the North and Central American and Caribbean region, maybe the U.S. or Mexico.

A home loss on Saturday also would be even more humiliating for Argentina than the 6-1 drubbing Maradona's team suffered against Bolivia in La Paz in April.

Argentina has not failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1970, but this time around it could be a close-run thing.

"Yesterday, when I met up with the players, I said that I'd give anything to be 20 years younger and be able to play myself," Maradona told Argentina's Radio del Plata on Tuesday.

Not that he would be needed. Lionel Messi at 22 is a much better option for Argentina and the young star is also a lot more confident. "I think we can win comfortably," Messi said this week.

Each of South America's 10 teams has four games remaining. Peru has been mathematically eliminated and Bolivia and Venezuela soon will fall by the wayside.

On paper, Brazil (27 points), Chile (26), Paraguay (24) and Argentina (22) should qualify directly for the World Cup, with Ecuador (20) Uruguay (18) and Colombia (17) fighting it out for fifth place.

But Brazil's strength and Argentina's injury woes have Maradona nervous. This is his first really vital test since he was the surprising and controversial choice 10 months ago to be Argentina's coach. Maradona, in his late 40s and widely considered one of the game's greatest players, was captain of Argentina's 1986 World Cup championship team.

But the road to South Africa isn't easy. On Wednesday, Argentina is on the road at third-place Paraguay and faces another serious test.

Perhaps Argentina's precarious position was why the farfetched rumor surfaced in July that Maradona would step aside as national coach and take on some sort of all-encompassing role with Portsmouth in the English Premier League.

"I do not know if Maradona is a good coach," Abu Dhabi billionaire and new Portsmouth owner Sulaiman Fahim told Arabian Business magazine. "What I think is that he should be president of a club and have the right to buy and choose players. . . . He has the power to transform football teams."

Maradona was forced to respond, dismissing it as fiction and saying his players would never find out something secondhand, that he would always be up front with them.

Since then, he has been talking up a storm.

He told the Argentine sports daily Ole, "In no way would I abandon ship. Light blue and white blood runs through my veins." And in a later interview, "It was much easier being a player. I only thought about getting the ball and enjoying myself. Now I have to take control of around 25 players. There are things that complicate me."

Maradona told TyC Sports, "Against Brazil we will play for our lives."

He told Radio Palermo that Argentina would win "because we have better players."

He told reporters in Rosario that "the entire Brazilian team makes me scared. They have a fantastic side."

He was quoted on FIFA's website as saying that the Brazilians "play joyful, entertaining football, while we have fighting spirit and good players. I don't think one is any better than the other."

He rallied his countrymen by telling FIFA: "We are all Argentines and we're going to be coming up against our biggest rivals. We have to remain united; otherwise, Brazil can do us great harm."

Maradona also noted in his FIFA interview that he had finished ahead of Brazil's Pele in a poll to determine the best player of all time. Pele responded Wednesday, saying, "We already know who Maradona is. . . . What he says isn't worth taking into consideration."

On Saturday, the truth might be determined.




World Cup

The top four South American teams qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the fifth-place team plays the fourth-place team from the North and Central American and Caribbean region for a spot in the Cup. With four games to go for each team, here are the region standings:

*--* Country W-L-D G-Dif Points Brazil 7-1-6 +19 27 Chile 8-4-2 +9 26 Paraguay 7-4-3 +7 24 Argentina 6-4-4 +2 22 Ecuador 5-4-5 -2 20 Uruguay 4-4-6 +7 18 Colombia 4-5-5 -4 17 Venezuela 5-7-2 -7 17 Bolivia 3-8-3 -11 12 Peru 1-9-4 -22 7 *--*

Source: FIFA

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