Maradona: Charming, combative – and a great manager too?

In Johannesburg, James Lawton enters the ever-surprising world of Diego Maradona
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The Independent Football

For the moment at least he is the most compelling figure in this World Cup, even though he will not kick a ball, and yesterday Diego Maradona seized the centre of the stage with his extraordinary version of war and peace.

Maradona made war on his old enemy Pele, the only player most serious judges would put above him in the history of the great tournament, and a new one, Uefa president and another former elite player, Michel Platini.

But most striking of all was the peace he imposed upon his sometimes prickly relationship with Lionel Messi, the man he now anoints as the most talented player at this 19th World Cup by a vast distance – and the single most compelling reason why Argentina could be poised to win the world title for a third time.

"Yes," he said, "I'm excited. I want to be a champion of the world again and I have Messi aboard. With him there are so many possibilities, nobody can go against him. Some players have looked good already, Lukas Podolski [Germany], Maicon and Elano [Brazil] but they have only 40 per cent of what Messi has."

The man who dominated the 1986 World Cup in Mexico – and probably came closer than anyone to carrying on his back the winning team – has insulted Messi in the past – and questioned his commitment to his fellow players with the slur, "He is Messi FC and sometimes he does not think of his team-mates."

The slight, though, was drowned in a sea of praise by Maradona on the eve of today's second group game here against the feisty South Koreans, a match which the controversial coach believes will see his team secure their place in the second round.

Maradona said: "Messi is so calm, so serene, so mature he reassures me. He needed a beautiful game like he had against Nigeria, he needed to be charismatic, he needed to be a leader and fight for every ball.

"I asked him to do it and he did it, and what we saw in him were enormous qualities we haven't seen from him for a while, well, except maybe at Barcelona."

The reference to Barcelona carried Maradona into the heart of a fierce debate back home in Argentina. It is one that has included the charge that emotionally the great player has more allegiance to his adopted country Spain than his homeland, which he left as a boy to benefit from the expensive growth hormone treatment offered by Barcelona.

However, if Maradona entered the debate he also buried it, along with his apparent ambivalence towards the only player potentially capable of challenging his own iconic status.

"I have told Lionel what I expect him to do and what he can do, and I'm very happy at this World Cup because I have a great player – and a great team." When he was asked, quite, pointedly by an Argentine television man, "Have you told Messi what you think of him?" the coach snapped back: "Yes I have – and I have told him he has a wonderful team behind him. Hopefully the gods will help – and we will help ourselves."

Close observers of the man who over the years has displayed nothing so much as an apparently raging death wish said they had rarely seen him so composed as he was yesterday when he strolled into the stadium in Pretoria and proceeded to charm and fascinate a huge media gathering.

Inevitably, fresh criticisms of him from Pele and new ones from Platini were immediately raised.

Pele wrote in a Rio newspaper this week that the saviour of Argentine football was motivated not by patriotism but by money, an old and somewhat bizarre charge from a man who has never been slow to exploit the power of his own name.

"I'm not surprised Pele is bad-mouthing me again. Maybe he loves me, he talks about me all the time. Pele should go back to the museum."

There was the same level of contempt for Platini, who said recently that Maradona may have been one of the great players but that "he has no qualities as a coach". The claim, made widely in the football community, provoked no rage yesterday, just an expression of distaste and the comment: "We know how the French are. They think they are the best. Platini is French." Maradona shrugged his shoulders in disdain. He looked like a man in charge of all his passions – and prejudices.

Today's opponents South Korea had won his respect for the fighting qualities they displayed against Greece in the opening game but then he told a Korean questioner, "With respect, you do not have Messi. South Korea play in a strong bloc but they're not going to win."

Certainly not, he added, if referees provide proper protection for a man like Messi, a player who can cause devastation at any moment and will inevitably attract ruthless, sometimes even wild attention. "If the Koreans attempt foul tactics on Messi there is a lot to be done by the referee. Referees have to give yellow cards – and then red ones if the foul tactics persist. If they don't want to play football let them go home. The referees have to show spirit. We have to be clear about this. We are clear about what we want to do here. We want to play football, not break legs."

Some may say that Maradona the enforcer of football's purest values is something of a stretch of the imagination, but then the man who once claimed to have employed the hand of God certainly suffered more than anyone's fair share of physical abuse in the course of his extraordinary career. Long before the end of it he was sustained by painkillers, he was a cortisone pin-cushion, and in his new, explicit commitment to Messi's progress towards the peak of the game he once occupied, he seems determined to drum up the best protection that can be mustered.

As Maradona spoke to the world, a small group of his players, led by central defender Martin Demichelis, gathered behind him – an unusual sign of devotion at this point in the campaign.

What they heard from the leader was more than anything a statement of faith. Juan Sebastian Veron was being left out of the game with South Korea because of the risk of developing a slight injury but Maxi Rodriguez, the scorer of a brilliant goal against Mexico in the second round of the last World Cup, would bring his own fighting qualities.

"Truly, I have a squad of 23," said Maradona. "I am a very lucky coach. Veron said he understood the position and I told him he still had an important part to play. He is another leader. Carlitos [Carlos Tevez] came to me and said, 'I don't care where you play me, I want to serve the team.' He said he would play striker, in midfield or on the wing – anywhere.

"I don't know whether we are among the favourites with strong teams like Brazil and Spain, but I know what I have got. I have players of great ability or who are committed to their team and this makes me very proud today. We have great strikers like Higuain and Milito and there is any hardly any difference between them."

He thought Brazil were, well, Brazil, the other night against North Korea. They were calm and in reality they were never threatened. No, nothing he had seen so far had separated him from the belief that he might indeed become a World Cup-winning coach. He had a team that was working together and was filled with talent. Above all he had Messi, who player who in the first game of the tournament had announced who he was and what he could do. Who needed the gods – or any of their limbs?

Then, finally, there was again the question raised by Pele and Platini. Was he really a true coach, did he have a set of values which made him the man to lead Argentina back to the top of football, or was he merely a somewhat unpredictable soldier of fortune?

"Yes," said Maradona, "I feel a true coach and that I really have the capacity to teach players. This is my responsibility. When you come to a World Cup you cannot just do what you like, you have to what is best for the team. You have to do what is best for your life."

For Pele, he suggests, it would be best to lock himself away in some dusty room of history. For himself, of course, there is a rather more attractive prospect. It is to win another World Cup – and entirely on his terms except for just a little help from his new, young and peerless friend Lionel Messi.