Argentina were preparing to make their first World Cup semi-final appearance in 20 years but for the throng gathered inside Green Point Stadium for the latest audience with Diego Maradona, there was only one topic of conversation, the humiliation being felt by their old enemy, Brazil.
"Even the photographers are dressed like Dutchmen," the Argentina manager quipped when seeing them wearing their orange tabards. "But, really, I don't want to talk about Brazil. Their defeat is their problem. I have other business. Just because they are eliminated it doesn't make Argentina favourites. But if anyone is going to beat us, they are going to have leave their skin on the pitch."
Nobody really believed that Maradona did not want to talk about Brazil because he was quite prepared to discuss anything else before a fixture that has defined his career. In 1986, in what could probably be counted the last great World Cup final, he caressed the trophy he had done so much to win in the Azteca Stadium.
Following a 3-2 victory over West Germany, his horizons appeared limitless; four years later, in the aftermath of another more brutal final, he was in tears, rounding on his team-mates for consoling themselves with the thought that they had at least reached a World Cup final with the words: "You don't celebrate second place, tiger." His international career had another four years to run before it ended in a failed drugs test.
At the start of the tournament, Maradona gave his side six-and-a-half out of 10 for their performances. Now he rates them as an eight, adding that it was difficult to assess Germany because England had "made it so very easy for them" in Bloemfontein.
Germany have been talking rather more about Argentina. Bastian Schweinsteiger recalled the violence that flared between the two sides in Berlin four years ago, after Argentina lost the quarter-final on a penalty shoot-out. Jens Lehmann had a list of where the Argentinian penalty-takers would put the ball stuffed down one of his socks. The Germany manager, Joachim Löw, replied that with Lionel Messi, who did not train because of a cold, and the rest of Maradona's formidable arsenal of attacking talent, Lehmann's successor, Manuel Neuer, would need a brochure not a list.
Franz Beckenbauer, still the spiritual overlord of German football, noted that Schweinsteiger's comments "were not the wisest thing he had ever said." He added: "I don't understand all these doubts that surround Maradona as a manager. An exceptional former player does not need to be taught about football. Argentinian players would go through fire for Diego. I know from my time at Bayern Munich with Martin Demichelis [the Argentinian centre-half] that the worst thing in their eyes is to let Diego down."
And yet, Maradona's defence is vulnerable to a German side that was tactically very adept against England. If Mesut Ozil can drag Walter Samuel and Javier Mascherano out of position as he did with John Terry and Gareth Barry in Bloemfontein, then the space Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski require would open up.
Beckenbauer urged Klose to attack the Argentinian back four early. While Lothar Matthaus, another veteran of both the 1986 and the 1990 finals, argued that the absence of Michael Ballack had allowed a young side to blossom. Curiously, Ballack is due in Cape Town to support the side he once captained, along with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Löw appeared supremely relaxed, arguing that Schweinsteiger was perfectly entitled to express his opinion and that the quarter-final would be "a cut-throat encounter in which we will have to fight for every centimetre."
He would still continue to play his team the motivational videos just before kick-off, including shots of fans in Germany celebrating their goals. "They will be ready when they get on that pitch," he said. "We are not going to sit shivering nervously in the dressing room, hoping the referee will postpone the match. We are fully ready for this." When it was pointed out to Löw that Mick Jagger was now backing Germany for the World Cup he winced. "You can't bet on Mick Jagger's predictions because by backing England at the start he has been wrong about football before."
Germany v Argentina: Three Key confrontations
Jerome Boateng v Lionel Messi
A goalless Messi has not been at his best in the finals but his waspish running will concern Germany's defence. Their lack of a natural left-back – neither Holger Badstuber nor Jerome Boateng have convinced – is something of which the mercurial Messi will seek to take advantage.
Miroslav Klose v Martin Demichelis
The 32-year-old Klose habitually comes alive at World Cups. His opener against England last weekend was his 12th in finals history, making him the fourth highest World Cup scorer. Demichelis has struggled for form and will have a severe examination up against Klose.
Per Mertesacker v Gonzalo Higuain
Part of England's ill-fated game-plan last weekend was to target the perceived weakness of Mertesacker, and, while Fabio Capello's side failed dismally, Higuain could have more success this afternoon as he looks to further his claim for the Golden Boot.Reuse content