Diego Maradona is poised for a record-breaking competitive bow as Argentina coach when he leads the double world champions into their latest 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier against Venezuela on Saturday.
The legendary player, who has overseen two friendly wins over Scotland and France since taking charge last year, is in such demand that the Estadio Monumental is expected to be at capacity. Over 19,000 tickets were snapped up on Thursday alone with a new stadium record for gate receipts expected to be generated.
Argentina, who will also face Bolivia in La Paz next week, are currently third in the South American qualifying zone with 16 points, seven behind leaders Paraguay and just one behind bitter rivals Brazil. Maradona succeeded Alfio Basile who resigned after a FIFA World Cup qualifying defeat to Chile last time out, won praise for his tactics in a 2-0 win over France in Marseille.
His build-up to Saturday's clash has not been helped by veteran playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme saying he will never turn out for a Maradona-coached Argentina side. However, Maradona has a luxury of youth and experience to call upon from Javier Zanetti, with over 120 caps, to Barcelona star Lionel Messi and Atletico Madrid's Sergio Aguero whose links to the coach are very close - his girlfriend is Maradona's daughter.
A month ago, Aguero and Giannina presented the 48-year-old Maradona with his first grandchild. "Becoming a grandfather has revitalized me," said the coach.
Manchester United striker Carlos Tevez is also enjoying the new regime. "You get goosebumps every time Diego talks to you. We're very happy with the national team set-up and I'm sure Argentina are going to do very well," said Tevez.
Brazil travel to Ecuador on Sunday with their build-up rocked by an increasingly bitter and public war of words between Robinho and Pele. Coach Dunga had been under fire after Brazil played out three uninspiring 0-0 draws at home before recapturing their form of old with a 6-2 friendly victory over Portugal and a 2-0 win against world champions Italy in London. "We enjoy playing the way we did in these friendlies. And when we do that we're tough to beat," said Robinho.
Leaders Paraguay, who have won seven and drawn two of their qualifiers, will travel to Uruguay on Saturday. With the top four sides assured of places in the finals, they already have one foot in South Africa. "We've already made important strides but we've still got the final step to take," said coach Gerardo Martino.