The look on Diego Maradona's face summed up the sense of desolation that seized the Argentina camp after their 4-0 loss to Germany in Cape Town on Saturday. The South Americans' was inconsolable after his much-fancied side had been unceremoniously dumped out of the competition, sobbing for a full hour after the final whistle. Eventually regaining his composure, Maradona thanked his players for all their hard work before making his way to the post-match press conference.
"In all my 50 years this is the toughest moment I've ever had to go through," he admitted in front of the world’s press. "So many good players, good people and good professionals. It's like being punched by [Muhammad] Ali. I don't have any energy left."
Wearing the look of a man who had just come face to face with harsh reality, Maradona's disappointment was intensified by the failure of his side to fulfil the rich promise they had shown in reaching the last eight. Prompted by Lionel Messi, and boasting the tournament's joint-leading scorer Gonzalo Higuain in the ranks, the Argentinians had seduced everyone with their inventive play, winning all four of their games and hitting ten goals in the process, while conceding only two.
Yet the bubble of optimism that had grown in those four outings was pricked in ruthless fashion by the Germans. And not even the presence of Maradona on the bench or memories of Argentina's stirring win over the same opposition in the Mexico 1986 Final could alter the course of events. Thwarted time and again by a superbly disciplined rearguard, the Argentinians fell to a numbing defeat, the latest in a string of setbacks that has prevented them from progressing beyond the quarter-final stage for the last five FIFA World Cup™ finals.
"The boys gave absolutely everything they had," said Maradona in praise of his players. "You'd have to be stupid to think otherwise. Messi was crying in the dressing room and when you witness something like that you can see what he really feels for the jersey. I'm hurting for them. They came to South Africa in search of glory. Sadly, they'll be going away with nothing."
Exiting the tournament without having scored a single goal, Messi found the end of Argentina's dream especially hard to assimilate. Germany striker Lukas Podolski saw that for himself when he made his way to the Argentina dressing room to swap shirts with the Barcelona ace only to meet with disappointment when his request went unanswered.
Though it ended in crushing disappointment, Argentina's latest FIFA World Cup foray has given grounds for optimism, as Gabriel Heinze, one of the most experienced members of the squad, pointed out. "I'm so disappointed we haven't been able to give the country the party it wanted, but my faith in this team is absolute. We've got some very young kids who've given their all for the jersey and they're going to bring a lot of joy to the national team."
The seasoned central defender has a point. No fewer than 15 members of Argentina's 23-man squad were appearing in their first world finals, an experience that will surely stand them in good stead for next year's Copa America and the qualifying competition for Brazil 2014. With the likes of Sergio Romero, Angel Di Maria, Javier Pastore, Higuain and Messi forming the backbone of the side in the years to come, Argentina fans need not be downcast for too long.
Whether Maradona will stick around to oversee their development is a moot point. "I don’t know if I'll stay on in the job," said the man himself, in answer to the conjecture about his immediate future. "It's something I need to speak about with my family and my bosses. There are a lot of things that need to be taken into consideration. But no matter who comes in they'll need to carry on with the journey we've started with these players, by playing football people want to watch, by getting forward, passing and moving. That's what the history of Argentinian football dictates, and this is a group of players that deserves to set the record straight."