The events of 21 June 1994 in the US city of Boston will forever be etched in the memories of Argentinian football fans. La Albiceleste were two Gabriel Batistuta goals to the good and cruising against Greece in their opening game of that year’s FIFA World Cup™ when, bang on the hour mark, Diego Armando Maradona lashed in his side’s third with a stunning left-footed drive into the top corner. As he charged off to celebrate wildly in front of a nearby camera, little would El Pibe de Oro know that he had just scored his last goal at the global showpiece.
In an ironic twist of fate, Argentina’s final Group B opponents here at South Africa 2010 are none other than the Hellenics, precisely 16 years and a day after that game in Boston. “How could I forget that goal? I was about 10 years old and I watched it at home with my family," recalled Javier Mascherano, captain of the Albiceleste squad currently coached by Maradona himself. "It was one of the best goals scored by Argentina in World Cup history."
"That celebration perfectly summed up how Diego feels about the Argentinian national team. It always shone through in everything he did, from what he did out on the pitch to his celebrations,” added the Liverpool ball-winner.
In full agreement with his skipper was Inter Milan defender Walter Samuel. “Diego’s goal and his celebration will be remembered forever by every football fan. It was a moment of pure joy. I remember that there was a huge amount of expectation surrounding that team, though unfortunately they couldn’t bring home the title.”
There can be little doubt that Maradona has come into his element as Argentina coach here in South Africa. His fame and larger-than-life persona have been drawing all the attention and pressure away from his charges, who have responded with victories in both their group games so far.
“When you take the field and see that the rival fans are chanting your coach’s name then you’re already part of the way towards winning the game,” said defender Nicolas Burdisso. “It seems hard to believe, but Diego manages to trigger something very special in us and our opponents.”
Having endured substantial criticism in the months building up to the tournament, a suited-and-booted Maradona has been able to silence the doubters, impose his style on the team and ensure a 100 per cent start to a tournament in which other traditional powers have struggled. “Sometimes Diego seems like just another player,” said Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuain.
“He joins in with us in training, takes free kicks and helps us relax. It’s really important to have a motivator of his stature, someone who’s already won the World Cup and can pass on to us how it feels,” added El Pipita, kept in the starting line-up by El Diez despite a goalless display against Nigeria. The result? A hat-trick in the 4-1 win over Korea Republic.
“At first you feel a bit intimidated by him, by everything he represents,” said Manchester City livewire Carlos Tevez. “But as the days go by you manage to relax and realise what he’s really like: a genuine phenomenon.”
And finally, what does El Pelusa himself make of being back at world football’s top table as a coach rather than a player? “I’ll always be a footballer, though now my responsibility is to this squad. They’re giving their all and having a spectacular tournament. Next up are Greece. We’ll be trying to guarantee qualification and be able to celebrate after the game.”