'Suck it, and keep sucking' - How Maradona blew Messi's best chance of winning the World Cup

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Diego Maradona Lionel Messi Argentina 2010 World Cup GFX
The Albiceleste should have been among the favourites in South Africa 2010 but Diego's tactical incompetence and player feuds led to disaster

If one picture could sum up Lionel Messi's international career with Argentina, it would be his thousand-yard stare towards the World Cup trophy as he filed past following final defeat against Germany in 2014.

The captain came agonisingly close to football's biggest honour, but it continues to be just an elusive dream after four attempts – three of which have come unstuck against Germany.

That Brazil campaign sticks in the mind for several reasons. The tens of thousands of Argentines that streamed across the border to support their heroes, Sergio Romero's penalty heroics in the semi-finals, the infamous misses from Gonzalo Higuain, Rodrigo Palacio and Messi himself prior to Mario Gotze's killer blow in extra time.

But, in many ways, 2014 was not the Barcelona superstar's best opportunity to win the big one. In fact, that came four years earlier, and almost a decade ago to the day.

While Alejandro Sabella's troops in 2014 were a well-drilled, functional unit with few thrills aside from their magical No.10, the players at Argentina's disposal to travel to South Africa trumped them in almost every regard. Unfortunately, the whims of coach Diego Maradona meant they went into the tournament already at a serious disadvantage.

No fewer than four Argentines had formed a key part of Jose Mourinho's treble-winning Inter side that same year, while Messi and Carlos Tevez had lifted the Champions League with Barca and Manchester United in 2009 and 2008, respectively. The following year, Javier Mascherano would join Leo in taking the European crown.

Maradona also had the luxury of calling on players from  three Under-20 World Cup-winning sides courtesy of the work carried out at youth level by Jose Pekerman and Hugo Tocalli among others, giving Argentina not just an enviable talent base but also a group of players that had grown up together and instinctively knew each other's play.

Perhaps most importantly, upon taking over in 2008 he found in place a creative axis which could rival any international team on the planet. Messi and Juan Roman Riquelme proved an irresistible partnership, a classic blend of youth and wily experience that took Argentina to Olympic Games gold two years earlier.

When other proficient performers like Gabriel Heinze, Martin Demichelis and Juan Sebastian Veron were added into the mix, the Albiceleste had everything in place to be regarded as serious challengers in South Africa.

“You can suck it, and keep sucking."

Maradona's defiant, foul-mouthed outburst at critical journalists following his side's agonising qualification for the World Cup is as good a summary as any for his entire reign.

The 1986 hero took the top job from Alfio Basile with almost zero experience as a coach, his only previous (and unsuccessful) stints coming at Deportivo Mandiyu and Racing Club more than a decade before.

Diego Maradona Argentina Peru 2009

Four qualifying defeats in six matches – including that unforgettable 6-1 mauling at the hands of Bolivia – left Argentina on the brink of elimination before Diego turned to old Boca Juniors warhorse Martin Palermo, whose last-minute winner in the pouring Buenos Aires rain against Peru averted disaster.

By the time the World Cup came around, the coach had picked 108 players for international duty in little more than 18 months, an astounding turnover that meant that few, least of all Maradona himself, could name a settled starting line-up.

Ariel Garce, for example, earned a place in Diego's World Cup squad after just one cap against Haiti. The 30-year-old Colon journeyman, however, had one thing in his favour.

“[Maradona] told me that he had a dream where Garce lifted the World Cup,” fellow 1986 winner Oscar Ruggeri told Un Metro Adelantado, confirming a long-held urban legend over why the defender, who did not play a single minute in South Africa, made the cut.

Palermo was also included at the age of 36, while the three goalkeepers in the Argentina squad – Sergio Romero, Mariano Andujar and Diego Pozo – had between them accumulated a grand total of 13 caps. It was the players who stayed at home, though, that truly defined Maradona's coaching failings.

Riquelme had withdrawn from contention the year before South Africa, offended by his former Boca team-mate's withering assessment of his play to reporters. “I saw him at Boca the other day and I don't know if he's got physical problems, but he's no good like that,” Diego had affirmed.

The pair's feud continues to this day, and Riquelme's absence created a creative hole that has never been satisfactorily filled in the Argentina line-up over the past decade.

If Maradona's forthrightness caused Roman to step down, his refusal to pick two of Inter's treble heroes was positively self-destructive. No explanation has ever been offered as to why Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, two of the world's finest players in their positions, were overlooked for the preliminary 30-man shortlist released in May 2010.

Some have speculated that Zanetti's wholly undeserved reputation as a 'mufa', or bad luck charm, convinced the famously superstitious coach to leave him at home. Their omissions, along with that of Real Madrid star Fernando Gago, left the Albiceleste unbalanced in both defence and midfield.

The issue was never going to be resolved with the inclusions of such uninspiring names as Fiorentina reserve Mario Bolatti, Newcastle utility man Jonas Gutierrez and untested Velez Sarsfield hopeful Nicolas Otamendi.

Maradona rode into South Africa at the head of a coaching team comprising many of his old buddies from 1986 and took the tournament by storm. His ever-explosive public statements and eccentric behaviour immediately endeared him to the world football press, as did his rather liberal team rules.

“It is impossible to keep an Argentine away from the barbecue for a month,” team doctor Hugo Villani explained. “They will be able to have the odd glass of wine, some barbecued beef.”

Sexual activity was also given the green light during the World Cup, although again with certain caveats: “Not at 2am and accompanied by two bottles of champagne and two cigars.”

That recipe certainly paid dividends to begin with. Nigeria, South Korea and Greece were blown away by a kamikaze line-up which featured Messi, Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain in attack. A young Sergio Aguero, Inter hero Diego Milito and Palermo were poised on the bench. Angel Di Maria and either Veron or Maxi Rodriguez started out wide, with Mascherano left to cover the rest of the pitch from the middle.

Mexico too were dispatched in the last 16 thanks to a wonder goal from Carlitos, leaving Argentina and their coach in a bullish – if not to say delusional – mood.

“Let's not believe the bullsh*t about Germany,” Maradona bragged ahead of the quarter-finals. Joachim Low's men were in similarly imperious form going into the clash, netting 13 goals in four matches and on a high after destroying England 4-1 to reach the last eight.

But, seemingly unconcerned by the attacking talents of the likes of Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose, the coach refused to compromise his gung-ho approach, even though injury had robbed the Albiceleste of defensive lynchpin Walter Samuel in the group stage.

An unchanged team from the Mexico clash was thus put to the sword by Germany, who unlike their rivals, boasted discipline and cohesion to accompany the talent on the pitch.

Argentina PS

Otamendi, playing out of position at right-back, lost Muller after just three minutes to allow the Bayern star to nod home the first goal and went on to suffer a torrid time, failing to stop Podolski running riot on the left flank.

The final score read 4-0 in favour of Low's charges but it could have been even worse for Argentina, who in the second half in particular were little more than a disorganised rabble charging across the pitch in search of salvation.

That disaster did not preclude Maradona and the Albiceleste from receiving a heroes' welcome at Ezeiza Airport when they made their way back from South Africa, while Diego was quietly shunted out of the door by AFA president Julio Grondona a few days later.

Back at the World Cup, meanwhile, the supposedly invincible Germans were shut out by Spain, who in turn had been a missed Oscar Cardozo penalty away from going out to Paraguay.

The rest is history: Andres Iniesta's winner in extra-time against the Dutch, a fourth straight 1-0 win for the Roja and their first-ever title. Spain barely caused a ripple on their understated journey to the final compared to the furore that surrounded Argentina and Germany, but they proved that it is usually the most solid team, not the most scintillating, that takes the honours.

Counter-factuals are always fraught with danger. But it is hard to envision, to take just one example, the evergreen Zanetti allowing Podolski such liberty to do damage out wide if the Inter legend had won the call. Or that a midfield that contained Cambiasso would have become so disjointed against top-level opposition.

Perhaps with Riquelme pulling Argentina's creative strings there would have been no need to pick such a top-heavy first XI, permitting the Albiceleste to keep their shape and take on Germany in a far more intelligent manner.

In any case, the Messi that took the field in South Africa was also a different player to that of 2014 and 2018. The pressure on his shoulders to deliver at international level had yet to reach such crippling proportions, untainted as it was by the subsequent run of final defeats.

Given the chance to play his own game, supported by players of Riquelme and Cambiasso's calibre, Leo could have taken that competition by storm; Maradona's wild visions and tactical incompetence, however, meant that Argentina squandered a golden generation of talent and were doomed to return home early.

Messi may have got closer four years later, but it was in 2010 that the stars should have aligned for him at the head of a fantastic squad of players who could have joined him all the way to glory.