Pain of past defeats strengthens Mexican resolve, says Marquez
Argentina v Mexico, Tomorrow, 7.30, BBC1, Johannesburg
Saturday 26 June 2010
There is history, ancient and modern, running through this fixture and for Mexico there is a chance to avenge wounds that are still stamped on Javier Aguirre's squad and an injury few of them would be aware of.
Manchester United's newest signing, Javier Hernandez, might not know about Ulysses Sancedo but his grandfather, who played for Mexico in the 1954 tournament, would have done. Sancedo was a Bolivian referee who in the first World Cup of all took charge of Argentina's encounter with Mexico. He awarded five penalties and Argentina won 6-3. Observers suggested that two were probably justified.
Four years ago, in Leipzig, things were rather closer if no less hurtful for El Tri, who were attempting to reach the quarter-finals for the first time outside their own country. On this occasion, they took the lead through Rafael Marquez only to be pegged back and beaten in extra time by a side built not around Lionel Messi but Juan Riquelme, a playmaker that Diego Maradona very early on his reign ruled surplus to his requirements.
"We have changed our mentality since then," the Barcelona defender reflected. "We are stronger than we were before and now the attitude is: 'It's Argentina – so what?" In 2006, Maradona's predecessor, the rather more sober figure of Jose Pekerman, was criticised for failing to use the talents of the then 19-year-old Messi, particularly in the quarter-final defeat to Germany; a fixture that may be repeated in Cape Town, should England fail to overcome their greatest footballing enemy in Bloemfontein tomorrow.
It is not an error Maradona has any intention of repeating in Johannesburg, not least because Messi's talent is now so screamingly obvious, not least to his team-mate at Nou Camp, Marquez. In that sense, Mexico's tactics at Soccer City will be straightforward. "I know him pretty well," said Marquez with some understatement. "He is tough to play against and tougher to stop. We have to close down the space in which he operates quite simply because he is the best player in the world who can change the rhythm of a game at will."
Marquez is probably right to suggest, as he did, that "Argentina, defensively, are not that great". With the possible exception of Nigeria, who proved themselves distinctly wasteful in front of goal, Argentina have yet to meet an attack of real quality and in the shape of Hernandez, Giovani dos Santos and Arsenal's Carlos Vela, Mexico pack a youthful punch. Vela, who was taken off with a hamstring injury during Mexico's best display of the World Cup – a 2-0 win over France in Polokwane – is likely to return tomorrow night.
So too will Jonas Gutierrez, who represents one of Maradona's gambles, not least because he kept faith with a man relegated with Newcastle and then because he employed him as a wing-back in the opening two fixtures against Nigeria and South Korea before he was suspended. If, as Marquez suggested, Argentina's defence is its weakest point it has only conceded a single goal in three games.
At St James' Park, Gutierrez was known as "Spider Man" because of his habit of taking out a mask of the superhero whenever he scores – not that he needed to do it very much in the North-east.
In his native land, he is called more accurately "El Galgo" or "The Greyhound" because of his speed. He watched the game with Mexico four years ago on television and when Newcastle collapsed into the Championship, he was pretty sure he would be following the 2010 tournament the same way.
"I thought Mexico were the better team in Leipzig, until Maxi Rodriguez scored," he said. "But that is football. We were better than Germany in the quarters but we still went out. Diego's support was very important to me. Newcastle had just gone down to the second division and they didn't want to loan me out to anyone.
"I thought I'd have a real job making the squad but when I was called up for a friendly with Russia [in August] he told me not to worry – what mattered was how I was playing rather than what league I was playing in. That really helped."
Maradona's Regime: Steak, sex and swearing
The players are allowed to eat chocolate, ice cream and dulce de leche, a caramel pudding popular in Argentina, but Maradona knows where to draw the line. "Messi won't be drinking a carton of dulce de leche every day," he said. The squad will be having asados (meat barbeques), but in moderation.
In stark contrast to Capello's regime, Maradona permits sex with wives and girlfriends during the World Cup. But, in his words, "there's a big difference between sex with a stable partner – and with prostitutes at 2am with champagne".
The players are allowed to splash some cash – they can go out on their own to hit the shops. Maradona says it's vital that the players lead as normal lives as possible during the World Cup. Happiness is essential.
There is a limit on time spent on consoles within the complex. Instead, Maradona organises games and quizzes, in which everyone must participate as a group activity. He has also provided a reading room, with a range of inspirational books.
The Argentinian press reports that this is a very happy camp. Maradona is always at the centre of everything and provides plenty of laughs. The body language of the players would suggest that's true – they do seem to be smiling and laughing a lot in the press conferences and on the training ground.
Maradona has a special place for his "greatest player in the world". He worries about Messi's natural shyness. Maradona has had long chats with Pep Guardiola, the manager of Barcelona, and with Messi's parents, and has done his upmost to make the young star feel part of the squad, something that he felt was lacking before. Reports suggest that Messi has responded very positively to this treatment – even to the extent of barking orders and swearing on the training ground, of which Maradona very much approves.
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