James Lawton: Alive and kicking: Messi lights up the World Cup
It is impossible to imagine a situation where Maradona might be critically passive
Friday 18 June 2010
Hold the black crepe because it may just be that reports of the death of the 19th World Cup have been, like those of the African plane crash of Ernest Hemingway, somewhat exaggerated.
Maybe the tournament that appeared to be so seriously flagging has indeed come alive and is dressed in the blue and white of Argentina.
If it proves true, and certainly the vital signs of men like Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez and, supremely, Lionel Messi were vibrant enough in the 4-1 defeat of South Korea yesterday, it would be entirely appropriate that the man in charge of the resurrection has for so long shown such an amazing resistance to the forces of mortification.
Diego Maradona has received more offers of the last rites than most of us have picked up trash mail but there he was kissing his players, one by one, and once again suggesting that within the turmoil of his life and the astonishing achievements in his football career there may indeed be the chemistry of a stunning triumph here in a few weeks' time.
But then if we have to hold off the funeral here, we should perhaps also remember that four years ago, in the 2006 World Cup, we were also talking about the beauty of Argentina's football and its power to make one of the great tournaments, something even to rival the mystique of Brazil's ultimate artistic triumph in 1970.
It was certainly thrilling to see that Argentina overwhelm Serbia & Montenegro with a flood of goals, one of them, scored by Esteban Cambiasso and coming at the end of a fantasy passage of more than 20 passes. Perhaps a new team had indeed come to colour the imagination of the football world. But then what happened in 2006 and yesterday had one similarity which at this early point would be foolish to ignore.
It is that for Serbia & Montenegro we can now read South Korea, teams of energy and some skill but far too distant from the top class to provide anything like the kind of form Pele's Brazil carried to the 1970 final after defeating England in Guadalajara in one of the great matches.
However, Argentina gave this ailing World Cup, with its multi-layered mediocrity and absurdly coquettish, money-grubbing ball, precisely what it needed yesterday: a lovely creative rhythm and individual performances of exceptional quality. It is also true that if there were similarities with their spectacular break-out in Germany, there were also differences that may prevent another crash-and-burn denouement.
Messi wasn't sitting on the bench while the Argentine nation yearned for a sighting of his precocious brilliance in the quarter-final defeat by Jurgen Klinsmann's over-achieving Germany. Nor was Maradona the super-fan venting his emotions for the television cameras.
He was at the heart of an extraordinary emotional bonding with arguably the tournament's most gifted group of players. Maradona's predecessor Jose Pekerman was a much respected coach but when the promise of that performance against Serbia was most seriously tested he was a critically passive figure, ignoring a Messi who, though unformed and still recovering from injury, might just have made the difference.
It is impossible to imagine a situation in which Maradona might be passive and yesterday he celebrated the range of his options. Higuain's selection over Champions League winner Diego Milito had been branded perverse by some, but the charge dwindled yesterday as the Real Madrid man gave a sleek demonstration of the striker's art of always finding the most dangerous positions.
Tevez has rarely looked better than in the first half yesterday. Maradona's son-in-law Sergio Aguero was also given the chance to make an impact, which he did with some brilliant touches.
Maybe we had just another diverting illusion. Perhaps we had something of deeper potential. Either way, there is no hardship in acknowledging that at least one team here has truly quickened the blood.
Creating such a sensation has been Maradona's first achievement. A more important one, though, would to be prove that when the big matches come, and there are setbacks, he will keep his head. His competitive heart has, of course, never been in question.
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