Despite a tortuous qualification campaign, Argentina are travelling to South Africa with serious designs on winning the title for the first time in 24 years. To achieve that goal, the 1978 and 1986 world champions have pinned their faith in coach Diego Armando Maradona, the country's most famous footballing son and the inspiration behind the second of those memorable triumphs.
His task is made easier by the fact that he has a star-studded squad at his disposal, one that features several survivors of the team that reached the quarter-finals at Germany 2006, not to mention Lionel Messi and a host of other young stars with several youth titles to their name. Given that roll call, the Argentinians appear to have the resources to atone for recent disappointments and win the country's first international trophy since the Copa America in 1993.
The road to South Africa
The Argentinians made extremely hard work of qualifying for the finals, just as they did in 1985, the prelude to an electrifying charge to glory at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. The two-time world champions started the campaign under the stewardship of Alfio Basile, who made way for Maradona after a defeat to Chile on Matchday Ten had relegated them to third place. Yet after a series of setbacks, they eventually hauled themselves over the line with narrow victories in their final two games against Peru and Uruguay.
La Albiceleste collected 28 points in all, their lowest tally since the introduction of the ten-team group system, recording eight wins, four draws and six defeats. Three of those reverses proved particularly painful. After going down to their first competitive defeat to Chile, Argentina slumped to a humiliating 6-1 reverse in Bolivia and suffered only their second-ever home qualifying loss at the hands of Brazil. Maradona's men engineered a late revival, however, with Martin Palermo scoring a dramatic late winner in the driving rain against the Peruvians. And days later the Argentinians made sure of their place in the finals with a battling 1-0 win over La Celeste in Montevideo.
The star players
Most of Argentina's hopes are invested in Lionel Messi, widely regarded as the best footballer in the world. Having earned that reputation thanks to his consistently brilliant performances for Barcelona, La Pulga (The Flea) has yet to fire on a regular basis in the famous blue and white striped shirt, something he will be hoping to make amends for in South Africa.
Providing the midfield ballast for the darting Messi will be their captain and driving force Javier Mascherano and the hugely experienced Juan Sebastian Veron, who will be out to prove a point or two after coming in for criticism during Argentina's fateful display at Korea/Japan 2002.
Considered by many to be the finest footballer ever to walk the Earth, Diego Maradona now has the opportunity to repeat as a coach his finest achievement as a player. Straight-talking, impulsive and a born competitor, Maradona retains the aura that made him such a revered figure during his playing days and will be hoping to impart his experience and know-how to a group of players who figure among his most ardent admirers.
Prior to taking on the national job, the legendary former No10 enjoyed brief spells in the hotseat at lesser lights Mandiyu in 1994 and Racing Club a year later, before making a return to the playing fields with his beloved Boca Juniors. A nine-year sabbatical from the game ended with his appointment as Basile's successor, and having steered his side into the finals he now faces a challenge he has already risen to once in his career.
Previous FIFA World Cups
- Argentina have reached four FIFA World Cup Finals in all. They beat Netherlands in 1978 and Germany in 1986 but lost to Uruguay in 1930 and to the Germans in 1990.
- La Albiceleste will be appearing in the FIFA World Cup for the 20th time at South Africa 2010, their tenth consecutive appearance.
- Set to make his first appearance as a coach, Diego Maradona played in four successive finals competitions between 1982 and 1994.
What they said
"I tell my players that 30 days of sacrifice for the chance to kiss the World Cup is nothing in the life of a man. An achievement like that is like touching the sky. I played in World Cups and I reached two Finals. I know what it takes. I know how to lead the group and how to coach the players. I've earned the right to talk about the subject. I didn't come eighth, ninth or get knocked out in the first round. I know something about this." Coach Diego Maradona