In a World Cup that has offered a briskly expanding repertoire of on-field shocks and off-field sound and fury, the progress of Argentina under the stewardship of Diego Maradona has been unexpectedly serene.
Maradona greeted Argentina's haphazard qualification for the finals with a tirade of abuse at journalists, but yesterday, with two wins out of two and all seemingly sweetness and light within the squad, the tournament's most improbable coach joked with reporters about the legality of Luis Fabiano's goal against Ivory Coast in comparison with his rather more high profile hand ball, played up Brazil's chances while at the same time looking down his nose at them and even had an encouraging word for England.
Barring another mighty upset, Argentina will top Group B and face a second round match with Mexico or Uruguay, who they beat in that final qualifier back in October. Since then, and after sifting erratically through over 100 players, Maradona appears to have settled on his line-up, although he will make changes today with Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and Javier Mascherano all likely to be on the bench, while Jonas Guiterrez, a very square peg in a very round hole on the right of the defence, is suspended. Even that may prove something of blessing with the Newcastle winger looking the glaring weakness in the Maradona masterplan. Lionel Messi, though, will not be given a break. "We had planned to rest him but he always wants to play and I love that," said Maradona before proclaiming his No 10 the "best in the world."
There was less fulsome praise for the neighbours. If Argentina and Brazil win their groups they cannot meet until the final and Maradona was keen to play down his side's chances in comparison with their bitter rivals. "Brazil doesn't play well but it finishes off the matches when it has to," said the 49-year-old. "That's why they're still the great favourites. We are not candidates or favourites. We are just here to give joy to the Argentines."
When questioned about Fabiano's juggled effort on Sunday and reports that the Brazilian had borrowed the most famous line in World Cup history, Maradona laughed. "No, this one hit his arm," he said. "It's pretty obvious. The tragicomic thing is the smile of the referee afterwards, I didn't see the referee laugh after I scored against England."
What to watch out for: all will be well for the Europeans
The comfort with which the South American contingent have eased through the opening exchanges, contrasts with the toils of Europe's traditional powerhouses, but in the relaxed, glass overflowing world of Maradona (at the moment) all will turn out well. "We're all going to make it," he said. "We'll find the usual suspects in the later rounds. I think it's been a beautiful World Cup so far."Reuse content