Since his appointment as Argentina coach in November 2008, Diego Maradona has called up 108 players to the national team. Having finally finished his auditions, El Diez has whittled the cast list down to 23, naming six Argentinian league players in his squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the largest home-based contingent since France 1998.

Making up the sextet are Diego Pozo, Ariel Garce, Clemente Rodriguez, Juan Sebastian Veron, Nicolas Otamendi and Martin Palermo. And as with the other 17 members of the squad, all of whom play in Europe, Maradona has complete confidence in their abilities: “Everyone in Argentina has their list but this is mine and I live and die by my 23 players.”

Maradona’s selection marks a slight change in La Albiceleste’s recent dependence on higher-profile European exports. Marcelo Bielsa’s squad for Korea/Japan 2002 featured only two men who plied their trade at home, while Jose Pekerman named only three such players in his list for Germany 2006, a far cry from the days when Argentina’s FIFA World Cup squads were almost entirely domestic in nature. Indeed, Mario Kempes was the only “foreigner” in the side that triumphed at Argentina 1978, and Carlos Bilardo’s Mexico 1986 champions featured only six overseas-based players.

The sorcerer and the boxer
Of the current six, perhaps the two players with the best chance of making the starting XI for the world finals are the 35-year-old Veron and Otamendi. La Brujita (The Little Witch) will be travelling to South Africa intent on making amends for Argentina’s disastrous showing at Korea/Japan 2002, while Otamendi, who made his first-division debut with Velez Sarsfield in 2008, is a combative defender with a big future ahead of him. The 22-year-old former amateur boxer can expect to make the trip across the Atlantic sooner rather than later if he puts in some punchy displays in South Africa.

Providing strength in depth will be Pozo and Garce, two of the lesser-known members of the squad, both of whom play their club football for Colon under ex-striker Antonio Mohamed, a good friend of Maradona’s. Goalkeeper Pozo has already appeared in two friendlies and will be third-choice custodian at the finals behind Sergio Romero and Mariano Andujar.

We’re all here now and it doesn’t matter who comes from where. I’ve got 23 Argentina players who are going to fight all the way in South Africa.

Coach Diego Maradona defends his selection of domestic-based players

Now 30, Garce had been planning to travel to South Africa to cheer the team on from the stands but has had to rearrange his travel plans following his surprise call-up. Firmly in contention for the right-back slot, Garce had little inkling that he would feature in Maradona’s plans after a solitary international outing against Haiti.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard I’d been named in the squad,” said the incredulous full-back. “A lot of people were saying that the friendlies with the home-based players were a waste of time, but the players were determined to show what they could do and win a call-up. This is the happiest moment of my career.”

Maradona has no doubts the defender merits his place, however: “Anyone’s who’s surprised about Garce’s inclusion obviously hasn’t been watching Colon and doesn’t know where Santa Fe is. It pays to be well-informed.”

A big-club mentality
Another of the candidates for a role at full-back is Clemente Rodriguez. The former Boca Juniors product has been impressing for Estudiantes of late and can play on either flank. Rodriguez also has international experience to draw on, having featured in the side that finished runners-up at the 2004 Copa America and the U-23 team that won gold at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004.

Nor should the claims of Palermo be overlooked. The ageless goalgetter has strong links with both Boca and Estudiantes. Starting out with El Pincha, he has gone on to become the leading marksman in Xeneize history and has also scored more goals than any other player during Maradona’s reign, five in total. “Martin is an amazing striker,” commented Albiceleste skipper Javier Mascherano in praise of Palermo. “He’s a phenomenon, and he saved our skins in the qualifier against Peru. It was like something out of a film. I hope he can do it again in South Africa.”

“I’m so excited about it,” said Palermo himself, who got the nod ahead of the likes of Lisandro Lopez and Lucas Barrios. “I know I can add that little bit extra.”

The last word, not surprisingly, goes to Maradona. “All sorts of things were said when we arranged those games for local players, but the results of those matches can be seen in this list,” he said, offering a typically robust defence of his selection procedure. “We’re all here now and it doesn’t matter who comes from where. I’ve got 23 Argentina players who are going to fight all the way in South Africa.”