After a tortuous campaign involving many a setback, Argentina made sure of their place at South Africa 2010 with a deserved 1-0 victory at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo. No one was more relieved about that than coach Diego Maradona. After telling FIFA.com in an interview earlier in the year that the FIFA World Cup™ would not be the FIFA World Cup without Argentina, the Albiceleste legend can finally rest easy.
The conclusion of the country's 15th successful qualification campaign could not have been sweeter for the much-questioned coach, who has received fierce criticism from many sections of the press, just as current general manager Carlos Bilardo did during his side's stop-start journey to the finals at Mexico 1986. Maradona proved the saviour on that occasion, and the man himself is clearly ready to repeat the trick.
"I'd like to thank, from the bottom of my heart, all the Argentina fans who crossed the pond (the River Plate) and came to support the national team," said a defiant Maradona at the post-match press conference. "I'd also like to thank my family and the people of Argentina and nobody else. We've reached the World Cup in style, taking on and beating a great Uruguay side and doing it like real men. This goes out to the people who believed, not to the disbelievers, who treated me like rubbish."
"There were two ways we could have got to the World Cup, but we couldn't afford to be complacent because we knew Uruguay were going to throw everything at us," said Maradona, eventually turning his attention to the game itself. "We were the better side, but I hope the Uruguayans go through all the same."
While La Albiceleste showed little in the way of attacking intent at the Centenario, they exhibited plenty of character and tactical nous, the very qualities that many had demanded of them on previous outings. Even so, it proved to be an uncomfortable evening for their embattled coach. "It was anything but enjoyable," he admitted. "With Uruguay we knew we couldn't afford to switch off for even a second. I'd like to thank the players because today was the day they made me a coach."
Central to Argentina's hard-fought win was the presence of some wise heads on the pitch, among them Juan Sebastian Veron, who perhaps did more than anyone to tilt the scales in their favour. Absent from the nerve-shredding win over Peru, La Brujita led the midfield with distinction in the white-hot atmosphere of Montevideo. "That's it. We're there," said the veteran schemer afterwards. "We've done what we came to do and that's what counts. Now we've got all the time we need for the coach to get down to work and come up with a team that can please the fans."
Another outstanding midfield performer was debutant Mario Bolatti, who was only on the field for a matter of minutes but still found time to grab the goal that clinched Argentina's ticket to the finals. "I just can't explain it. The ball dropped at my feet and all I had to do was hit it," said the incredulous 24-year-old Huracan player, who was still receiving the congratulations of his team-mates long after the final whistle. "It just happened to be me but this is something I'll never forget."
Centre-half Martin Demichelis also had plenty to say in the aftermath of a match in which so much was at stake for him and his team-mates. "Our careers and our history were on the line," said the Bayern Munich man, no doubt relieved at earning another opportunity to play in the finals after just missing out on a place in the Germany 2006 squad. "If we hadn't come away with the right result, it could have been a stigma forever. It's a big relief."
One man who did make the cut four years ago was Javier Mascherano, now the skipper of the side. In his after-match comments the Liverpool anchorman focused on the lack of faith people had in the team. "There have been a lot out there who haven't had any confidence in us but we showed that we love our country and that we give our all to defend it. Sure, there are things we need to sort out but we've got the time now to do that."
The similarities with the end of the qualification competition for Mexico 1986 are striking: a coach in the firing line, tension with the media and the overriding need for Argentina to return to the global elite.
Twenty-four years on, the two main protagonists of that remarkable adventure shared a tear at the end of an emotional evening. The question Argentina fans are now asking is: can the dynamic duo engineer another dramatic turnaround in their country's footballing fortunes?