(WFI) After 16 years away from a tournament for which he provided some of its most defining moments, Diego Maradona is back at the World Cup, this time in the manager’s dug out – a position that for many years seemed so unlikely as to be ludicrous.
So often accused of indiscipline in his personal and footballing affairs, his Argentina side – in defeating Nigeria 1-0 – belied their manager’s purported flaws with a display of discipline and persistence.
Maradona stomped the touchline, seeming to live every single kick; when Argentina opened the scoring on just six minutes he ran onto the pitch, punching the air as if it were he – and not goalscorer Gabriel Heinze – who had headed his country into the lead.
His Argentina team started the match with attacking brio, threatening to run away with the game in the opening ten minutes.
After just three minutes Lionel Messi appeared to run through the entire Nigeria defence, before squaring to Gonzalo Higuain, who inexplicably sidefooted wide from six yards.
Two minutes later, Messi cut in from the right and his shot was heading for the top corner until Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama tipped over. But from the subsequent corner, the Nigeria defence were asleep and failed to track Gabriel Heinze who headed home from the penalty spot.
Nigeria at this point were in disarray, but Argentina also looked vulnerable to the pace of the Nigerian forwards Victor Obinha and Chinedu Obasi. They got around the back of Argentina’s defence on at least half a dozen occasions in the first half, but were wasteful in attack throughout and the Everton centre forward Yakubu played as if he was his oft-insinuated “Nigerian” age, rather than his real one of 27.
What followed over the subsequent 84 minutes was, as much as anything, a personal duel between Messi and Enyeama, who was in inspired form and deserved man of the match.
Four times he denied the FIFA World Footballer of the Year, also making outstanding blocks from Higuain and substitute Diego Milito.
“It was my best ever perforamnce I suppose in that I kept the best player in the world out,” Enyeama said afterwards, with a look on his face that suggested he would have swapped the individual accolade for a result.
“Only God was on my side,” he added.
But for all of Messi’s terrific runs from deep, Nigeria also played their part in this encounter and once they had sorted their early defensive disarray they started to resemble one of their manager Lars Lagerbeck’s old Sweden teams – functional, well organized, rather dull but with a perpetual sense that they could maybe grab something.
Roared on by their vuvuzela-wielding
fans, their best chances came in the final quarter of the game when Yakubu finally came to life.
On 70 minutes intricate play down the Nigeria left found the ball worked to Taye Taiwo, who composed himself and fired a low shot inches wide. Ten minutes later Uche blazed over Yakubu’s cross with the goal at his mercy, and four minutes from the end the Everton man impudently turned and shot just over from 30 yards.
On the whole, however, Nigeria were too wasteful in attack to deserve anything from the game, but they highlighted frailties in Maradona’s side that better teams will surely exploit.
In the closing stages, Argentina brought on an extra defender to augment their 4-3-3 formation and close out the win. It seemed uncharaecteristic of a man, who made his name pushing the game to its limits – but augers well for Argentina’s progress in the tornament.
Afterwards, Lagerbeck seemed furious with his team’s profligacy and refused to shake hands with Maradona.
“Is it supposed to be custom?” he snapped at a Swedish journalist who asked him about it in the press conference. “You can do whatever you like.”
Maradona, on the other hand, has shown the virtues of doing things by the book.
Maradona was a relieved man after the game, insisting Argentina was “too forgiving” against Nigeria and should have scored more goals.
“To begin a World Cup in winning fashion gives you a certain sense of calmness,” said Maradona.
“The only thing that concerns me is that we won a big match. Thank God we won the game.”
He also praised Messi, who was a constant threat to the Nigeria defence with his quick passing moves and slick dribbling skills.
“Football wouldn’t be beautiful without seeing Messi touch the football,” he said.
Atmospheric Ellis Park
Today’s venue, Ellis Park – scene of South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup (last year immortalised in the Clint Eastwood film “Invictus”) – represents a very different sort of stadium to its brand new neighbour, Soccer City.
A functional concrete construction, it makes up for what it lacks in aesthetic charm with atmosphere. With its steeply pitched stands, there is a sense that you are on top of the pitch and the game.
Located in a working-class neighbourhood in downtown Johannesburg, thousands of local Nigerians, many ticketless, converged on the stadium before kick-off to sing, dance and make merry.
They were joined by a sizeable contingent of Argentinians, whose impressive banners covered the inside of the old stadium.
The media centre is, like that at Soccer City, a vast tented area, manned largely by cheerful volunteers and overseen with characteristic efficiency by the FIFA media team.
Inside, some journalists had to go without desks – although there was a definite sense that we had been spoiled by the world-class set-up in the opening venue.
From INSIDER James Corbett in Johannesburg.
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