World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi must end isolation to cure Maradona 'jinx' for Argentina

One of the pre-tournament favourites needed a late goal to beat Iran

Belo Horizonte

The madness of the Argentine campaign shows no sign of abating. Amid the recriminations over the struggle to overcome Iran on Saturday came a claim from the former head of the Argentine Football Association, Julio Grondona, that Diego Maradona had been a “jinx” because Lionel Messi’s late winner only came after he had left the Estadio Mineirao, 10 minutes before the end. “The bad luck charm left the stadium and we won,” Grondona said.

Maradona, who was sacked as national team manager by Grondona four years ago, responded in his own inimitable way, describing him as “a poor stupid fool” and raising his third finger to Grondona on national television.

Messi’s second goal of the tournament has sent Argentina through and if, as expected, they beat Nigeria in Porto Alegre on Wednesday, their most likely second-round opponents will be Switzerland, all of which looks highly negotiable. But there is no sense of ease in the camp.

Messi’s unhappiness with the way Alejandro Sabella set the side up against Bosnia has been well chronicled and the Argentine nation looked on aghast once again on Saturday. The sports paper Ole, which described the 2-1 win over Safet Susic’s Bosnians as the worst display under Sabella, took little encouragement from Messi’s-90th minute winner against Iran. “La alegria no tape el bosque: hay que mejorar mucho,” it said – “Joy doesn’t cover the forest. We must improve a lot.”


Angel di Maria was the only author of substance during Saturday’s first half and though there was some occasional rough-housing of El Enano (“the little man”), as Messi’s team-mates call him, he could not find a way through. There were two one-on-one opportunities for him during a game in which Iran coach Carlos Queiroz’s tactics were to prevent him getting a run on the ball. This is the way it will be for him.

Angel Di Maria in action for Argentina Angel Di Maria in action for Argentina  

Maradona knows about that type of World Cup experience. It was 28 years yesterday that the Hand of God did its worst against England in Mexico City, for a team which he dominated in the way that Messi does now. But Maradona could shoulder the weight of the entire team, as his slalom run past Terry Butcher, Terry Fenwick and others in the Estadio Azteca all those years ago revealed. The nature of Messi’s game requires others to play and interact with him far more.

“He is a player who needs the team,” the Argentine journalist Roberto Martinez said at the weekend. “He cannot be emotionally independent of the group and is therefore very demanding of his teammates. He is not Maradona, who used to charge on and could take the weight of the whole squad on his shoulders. Messi needs to be connected to the team, to work as part of a bigger whole.”

Maradona’s infamous ‘hand of god’ goal against England in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup Maradona’s infamous ‘hand of god’ goal against England in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup  

Argentina’s concern is that Messi might not be able to rescue them. The former Argentina midfielder Marcelo Gallardo has said that without Messi, the Argentines drop down a level, to be the equivalent of the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium, Uruguay and...England.

The defence was a part of the chaos against the Iranians too.  “I’m worried about this,” Sabella reflected. “During counter-attack situations, a match is decided. Things got a little difficult on counter-attacks, especially around the end of the match. This sort of thing can happen.”

If on Wednesday Iran can beat Bosnia – who have lost twice – and Argentina defeat Nigeria, Queiroz’s team will make a remarkable journey to the second round. “I hope we have showed the world that Iran can play football,” said Ashkan Dejagah, the  Fulham player. “We still have a chance to go through and who would have thought  our World Cup would last longer than England and Spain?”

Argentina is only hoping that the little man – of whom match-saving goalkeeper Sergio Romero observed, “He rubbed the lamp and settled the game” – continues to command. The midfielder Fernando Gago’s reflections on him told the story on Saturday night.

“Messi?  You have to use him,” he said. “You have to enjoy the best player in  the world.”

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