Not surprisingly for someone with his pace and tricky dribbling skills, Angel Di Maria has plenty of admirers in the game, though the most important of them all at this point in time is Argentina coach Diego Maradona. El Diez saw for himself what the Benfica player is capable of when he accompanied the Albiceleste squad at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008.
“He’s a spectacular player, a real thoroughbred,” enthused Maradona, who made a point of congratulating the youngster after he scored the gold-medal clinching goal in the final against Nigeria. “He just came out of nowhere and gave me a big hug,” recalled Di Maria in an interview with FIFA.com. “He said I’d scored a great goal and that he was delighted we’d won the gold.”
Nearly two years on from that momentous occasion Maradona remains enraptured with the left-winger and will almost certainly be naming him in his starting line-up to face Nigeria in Argentina’s Group B opener on Saturday.
“Even back then I think Diego liked the way I play,” said the smiling Di Maria. “I have a lot of very happy memories of the Olympic Games, and the final against Nigeria and the goal mean an awful lot to me.”
Comparisons are inevitable between the Beijing final and Saturday’s showdown, especially with both squads each featuring five players who battled for gold two years ago. Argentina had to fight hard to edge the west Africans on that occasion, and the former Rosario Central man believes they will be every bit as competitive at Ellis Park.
“I’m not surprised to see so many players from that team in their World Cup squad,” he said. “They have come on a lot since then and I’m sure they’ll be trying to impress against us.”
Respectful but not fearful of the challenge the Super Eagles pose, Di Maria is supremely confident of his own side’s abilities. “We have our own strengths and we’ve also been through a few youth tournaments together,” he explained. “We know each other inside out and we know exactly what we have to go out and do on the pitch.
"It should be a match to savour, that’s for sure. I sometimes think about the fact I’ve won two major titles at youth level for Argentina but nothing with the full national team,” he added in reference to that gold-medal win in China PR and La Albiceleste’s triumph at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007.
“That desire to win is something that’s drummed into you at an early age in my country. In Argentina you grow up watching great teams and important victories. Nothing could possibly compare to winning this World Cup. We want it and the people need it.”
Adding to the sense of occasion is the fact that Maradona is the man charged with the task of achieving that goal. “He’s a great coach and having him there all the time is an extra motivation for us,” said Di Maria.
“When you look at the bench and see him there you realise that there’s a man who’s won the World Cup and has played in two Finals. That’s something you can really draw on and we want to know what it feels like to win it too.
“Diego plays with us during training and every time he comes on to the pitch we get even more confident. It's almost as if he calms us down and relaxes us, and you can see that he’d love to still be playing.
“When I was sent off against Bolivia I thought I’d never get selected again. Diego put his faith in me, though, waited for me to serve my four-match suspension and called me up for the last two games. Thanks to the confidence he showed I was able to prove what I could do in the games that followed, and the best way I can pay him back is by giving my all in South Africa.”