Get over it, England! You also won a World Cup by cheating. That was one among many sound bites to fall yesterday from the lips of Diego Armando Maradona, who took to the podium of a banqueting hall in a Glasgow hotel to make his first public address as the manager of Argentina. In a wide-ranging press conference, the 48-year-old World Cup winner of 1986 – the year his "Hand of God" goal helped to knock out England in the quarter-finals – said winning the 2010 World Cup was his only immediate aim in the job.
He said it would be "special" to return tonight to Hampden to face Scotland in the venue where he scored his first international goal, against the same opponents, in 1979.
He dismissed fears that his string of personal problems with drugs, alcohol and erratic behaviour were any reason for fans to worry about his suitability for the job. "I get up every morning," he smiled. "Simple as that. I get up every morning."
He said he wants Lionel Messi to be more creative. He said Kevin Keegan was his favourite British player of all time. He said that one day, maybe, he could not rule out managing a club side in Britain.
Yet his most impassioned and emphatic replies to any questions came on the subject of his handled goal in 1986, and how it is remains a sore topic for the English. It was pointed out to Maradona that England's Terry Butcher, who played in that fateful match 22 years ago, is now Scotland's assistant manager, and that Butcher does not want to shake Maradona's hand tonight.
Maradona responded: "I'm not going to seek him out. I don't know why Butcher would take this attitude. Let him get on with his life, and I'll get on with mine. I won't lose any sleep over it." "But surely," Maradona was asked: "you as a patriot for your own team can understand why a patriot like Butcher would have been upset in 1986."
To which Maradona replied: "England won a World Cup and it was plain to see for everyone that they did that with a goal that did not cross the line. I don't think it's fair to judge me [for 1986] when stuff like that went on in 1966."
Warming to his theme as laughs rang out around the room, Maradona parted his hands to a distance of around a foot and added: "It was that far short of the line." Unsurprisingly, this went down well with both the Argentine media and the Scots, who together comprised a large part but by no means all of a crowd of some 200 members of the media in attendance. "I feel great to be back in Scotland and very proud to be the manager of such a great group of players," Maradona said. "I'm very much aware of how popular I am in Scotland. I'm glad I somehow made the people of this country happy and if I get the chance I will do so again... to repay the fans in Scotland for their support I want to offer up a spectacle tomorrow night."
Whatever happens on the pitch, it seems unlikely the action will unfold in front of a capacity crowd. As of last night, the Scottish Football Association had sold only around 27,000 of 52,000 tickets and was facing the possibility of making a significant loss on the fixture. It is understood that the SFA paid around £800,000 to lure Argentina to Glasgow, and will need to sell around 35,000 seats to break even. Tickets will remain on sale up until kick-off. The SFA hopes that Maradona's unexpected presence – which has led to 450 media accreditation applications and 150 countries buying broadcast rights to the game – will swell the gate at the last minute. Maradona insists that he is under no special pressure, either because of his iconic status or because a large number of Argentine people (73 per cent in one recent poll by La Nacion newspaper) think the Argentine FA were wrong to appoint him.
"I don't feel pressure whatsoever," he said. "If I hadn't accepted the offer I would have been a coward. I know it will be hard, but I need the Argentina team and they needed somebody. Now we are on a journey together that I hope will end in success in South Africa." On his nation's expectations, it was pointed out that Argentina have not reached the last four in a World Cup for almost 20 years. "The only objective is not the top four but to come first," Maradona said. "That's what we're aiming for with this group of players... a lot needs to change, not only tactics and players. But what I really want to achieve is to make the players happy to representtheir country."
Messi will not play tonight because of a deal between the AFA and his club Barcelona, that excuses him from friendies. But the player will be in the Hampden crowd to see his hero Maradona's first game. "Messi needs freedom," the new manager said. "We know he can convert chances but I want to see him all over the park, even three-quarters of the way back, creating chances. He has great passing and we can use that."
Maradona in numbers
16 matches The midfielder captained Argentina in a record 16 World Cup finals matches.
1st drug test Failed his first doping test in 1991, when cocaine was found in his system while at Italian club Napoli.
15 years Age when he made his debut for Argentinos Juniors in October 1976 against Talleres de Cordoba.
3 records His first three moves were all world records – Argentinos Jnrs to Boca Jnrs (1981, £1m); to Barcelona (1982, £5m); and to Napoli (1984, £6.9m).Reuse content