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BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Argentines have been waiting 24 years.
For more than two decades, great players Gabriel Batistuta, Diego Simeone, Hernán Crespo and Juan Pablo Sorín have played for the Argentine national team without hoisting the World Cup trophy.
But Argentines are banking on a 49-year-old who knows a thing or two about winning the World Cup to prove he hasn’t lost his magical touch in South Africa: Diego Armando Maradona.
Maradona captivated the world when he led Argentina’s charge to the World Cup title in 1986 in Mexico with a performance so magnificent it spawned a religion. But in South Africa, he’ll be on the sideline, trying to prove he can be just as successful as a coach as he was as a player.
Maradona played for the national team that reached the second round in the 1982 World Cup in Spain – four years after it won the tournament as the host. He established his legacy in 1986 and added to it four years later in Italy by leading the squad to the final before falling to Germany, 1-0.
La Albiceleste hasn’t placed in the World Cup since and is expected to arrive in South Africa with a roster heavy on talent, but light on World Cup experience.
The roster is almost a who’s who of the soccer world, beginning with reigning FIFA Player of the Year Lionel Messi, a forward who plays for Spain’s Barcelona, and including forward Carlos Tevez, who plays for England’s Manchester City, and Gonzalo Higuaín, who plays for Spain’s Real Madrid.
But Maradona has made more news for the players he’s leaving at home than the ones he’s taking to South Africa. Forward Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, who play for Italy’s Internazionale, were left off the list submitted to FIFA and replaced by younger players, including Ariel Garcé, a 30-year-old who plays for the Argentine club Colón.
“I miss Zanetti,” said journalist Daniel Lagares of the Argentine daily Clarín. “He’s the player that offers the most technical variations on defense in the midfield. Maradona is planning a defense without defenders on the sides, and Zanetti would do well in this regard. But he can also play in the middle.”
“When I accepted this position, [fans] asked that I not call on Zanetti,” Maradona said during an interview with Argentine radio station Mitre last week. “After a while, I had seen everything that I needed to see and I decided what I needed to decide. For me, Garcé and Sebastián Blanco are just as important as Zanetti and Cambiasso.”
Midfielders Fernando Gago of Real Madrid and Juan Román Riquelme of Argentina’s Boca Juniors also weren’t selected for the World Cup. Riquelme had a falling out with Maradona in which he said he would never play for the national team as long as Maradona was coach.
“I don’t agree very much with the coach of the national team,” he said during an interview with Canal 13. “We don’t have the same ideas. We can’t work together.”
Maradona said he tried to convince Riquelme, who played in the last World Cup, to reconsider.
“I had imagined a team with Román on board,” Maradona told Mitre radio station last week after announcing the World Cup roster. “I spoke with him and he didn’t want to come. I had to adapt and form a team around [Javier] Mascherano, [Jonas] Gutiérrez, [Ángel] Di María, Messi, Higuaín and Tevez.”
Zanetti, Cambiasso and Riquelme are recent examples of big-time Argentine players cut from the World Cup team. But leaving stars off World Cup rosters is nothing new in Argentina.
In 1998, then-coach Daniel Passarella didn’t invite midfielder Fernando Redondo and forward Claudio Caniggia because they refused to cut their long hair.
Twenty years earlier, coach César Menotti caused a public uproar by leaving behind a young Maradona, saying the 17-year-old emerging star was too young and inexperienced to compete on the game’s biggest stage.
Menotti, without the teenager who would become the country’s biggest soccer idol, guided La Albiceleste to the World Cup title.
Now, it’s Maradona’s turn to prove he can select a team that wins one.
Maradona’s Chosen Ones
Sergio Romero (AZ Alkmaar, Holland)
Mariano Andujar (Catania, Italy)
Diego Pozo (Colón, Argentina)
Nicolas Otamendi (Vélez Sársfield, Argentina)
Martín Demichelis (Bayern Munich, Germany)
Walter Samuel (Internazionale, Italy)
Gabriel Heinze (Olympique de Marseille, France)
Clemente Rodríguez (Estudiantes, Argentina)
Nicolás Burdisso (Roma, Italy)
Ariel Garcé (Colón, Argentina)
Jonas Gutiérrez (Newcastle, England)
Javier Mascherano (Liverpool, England)
Juan Sebastián Verón (Estudiantes, Argentina)
Ángel Di María (Benfica, Portugal)
Mario Bolatti (Fiorentina, Italy)
Javier Pastore (Palermo, Italy)
Maxi Rodríguez (Liverpool, England)
Lionel Messi (Barcelona, Spain)
Gonzalo Higuaín (Real Madrid, Spain)
Carlos Tevez (Manchester City, England)
Diego Milito (Internazionale, Italy)
Martín Palermo (Boca Juniors, Argentina)
Sergio Agüero (Atlético de Madrid, Spain)