Diego Maradona has spoken, and it will be Sergio Romero in goal for Argentina in South Africa. Having won the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada in 2007 and Olympic gold the following year, the AZ Alkmaar keeper proved his worth to El Pibe del Oro in three 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying matches and made the number one jersey his own, despite a recent knee injury.
The youngster from Bernardo de Irigoyen picked up a knock 15 minutes into a top-flight match against Sparta Rotterdam towards the end of March. The club's medical staff initially feared he would be sidelined for a number of months, but Romero proved them wrong, and was training again within two weeks. “My injury hasn't changed anything," he told FIFA.com. "Everyone at the club did their job to enable me to put this behind me. The Argentinian team doctor came here a week after my injury and I spoke to Maradona several times on the telephone.”
From Alkmaar to Argentina
Having won the league in his second season at Alkmaar in 2008-2009 under the aegis of Louis van Gaal, the former Racing Club Avellaneda goalkeeper enjoyed less success in terms of silverware in 2009/10 but still had the pleasure of playing in the UEFA Champions League. “It's the highest level in Europe and the moment you make the slightest error, you're made to pay dearly. It was a great experience and it certainly made me a lot stronger mentally.”
Having returned to his best form at just the right time, Romero is now a linchpin of the Argentina squad and thus well placed to give us an insight into Maradona's methods. He also discussed the enigma that is Lionel Messi when representing his country, and reviewed all the ups and downs that the Albiceleste went through on their roller-coaster qualifying campaign. Lest we forget, had veteran Martin Palermo not scored in the 93rd minute of a crucial qualifier in Peru, Argentina would have been watching South Africa 2010 on TV in their living rooms.
When asked about his illustrious coach, Romero chooses his words carefully. Maradona is, after all, the man who gave him his first cap, and has chosen him to be the last line of defence at the FIFA World Cup, aged just 23. “He lets me get on with my job. Whether it's Andujar or me, he just expects us to give it our all and lets us know that he trusts us. If a player has an opinion, he listens. And if he disagrees, he’ll tell you why.”
When it comes to discussing the defensive lapses that Argentina suffered during their qualifying campaign, Romero prefers to look forward. “Maradona knows exactly what to do with the defence. We've got three weeks to work on it now, not just a few days as is usually the case when we get together.”
Trust in Messi
Indeed, trying to get a negative view from Romero proves to be mission impossible. “I've no fears or worries,” he says calmly when asked about the immense pressure that is being heaped on his shoulders ahead of his first FIFA World Cup. “When you wear the Argentina shirt, it's a special feeling. The pleasure it gives you is unique. You need to be ready to die for the shirt, and whether you play your club football in Europe or Argentina the rest of the time doesn't matter."
“We know what we need to do,” said Romero with his trademark baby-faced smile. "We're in a tight group, we all share the same motivation and the same determination. The qualifiers were tough but the World Cup is another competition altogether. We're going to change what didn't work and let me tell you, the way we play in South Africa is going to surprise a few people. If we have the same strength and togetherness that we had in the final few qualifiers, we should fear no-one and can give anyone a match."
Argentina's No1 is also Lionel Messi's biggest fan. “I watch all of Barca's matches on the television”, he said, and remains resolutely upbeat about the 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year's role in the Argentina team. While he may not have had the same impact on the Albiceleste as he has on a regular basis for the Blaugrana, 'Leo' is a leader and an inspiration as far as Romero is concerned.
"The level that Messi plays at spurs us on and motivates us. Seeing him perform like that means that we have to give it 100 per cent when we play for Argentina to try to emulate him. In the qualifying matches, he had four or five people marking him. No-one can really show what they're really capable of when they're up against that. Against non-South American defences it'll be better. No-one can man-mark him. He's a massive advantage for us."