An unusually low-key Diego Maradona put ego aside Saturday as the Argentina coach gave the world's best player a license to thrill. By unleashing Lionel Messi, Maradona may turn a chaotic sideshow into a title challenge.
Far from holidng Messi back, Maradona has unleashed him
It was hardly surprising that many of the 50,000 pairs of eyes at the Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg were fixed on Diego Maradona before the match between Argentina and Nigeria kicked-off on Saturday afternoon. Here was a man who is seen by some as not only being larger than life but bigger than the game he so clearly adores, such is his legendary status as a World Cup-winning player of unquestionable talent.
But as soon as the whistle went, the short, rotund man in the sober suit – grey to match the signs of age in his beard – seemed to purposefully diminish, as much as someone like Diego Maradona can.
The Argentina coach remained visible for most of the game; pacing his technical area at times, standing thoughtfully at others. When Gabriel Heinze headed the only goal of the game to give Argentina victory, Maradona was mobbed by his coaching staff and substitutes alike but he refused to draw attention to himself with wild celebrations of his own.
This was not the Maradona many were expecting. In the run-up to the great man's first shot at winning the World Cup as a coach, it seemed that whatever the Albiceleste achieved in South Africa, the story would always be about Diego.
Many said he wanted it that way. It was even suggested that Maradona was so self-obsessed and egotistical that he would even tactically hobble the world's best player in an effort to keep his legacy intact. It was suggested that he would rather sacrifice Lionel Messi and Argentina's chances of glory than let his own standing in the annals of soccer history be eclipsed.
The freedom to perform
In the formation Maradona chose for the Nigeria match, Messi was allowed the freedom to run riot
Maradona's tactics and formation on Saturday put such conspiracies to bed. Messi was given the freedom of the park and played in his preferred role as part of an attacking trio alongside Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain.
As his strike partners ran the channels, Messi floated, he probed, he went off on those mazy runs which tie defenders in knots. This was not a player shackled by his coach's ego.
There had been concerns that the little magician would be forced to chase and carry in a congested midfield, creating openings for others rather than carving them out for himself as he does so destructively for Barcelona. If this was Maradona letting his ego get in the way, heaven help the opposition when he gets a bout of selfishness.
It wasn't all perfect, however. Messi showed signs of a long season fighting on all fronts for the Spanish champions and spurned a number of chances. It was rumoured before the World Cup began that he was running on empty and that, when given the world's biggest stage to perform on, there would be no fuel left in the tank. There were moments when it looked like the game wouldn't come to life for him.
Ready to take center stage
Argentina's icons finally look to be on the same page
Argentina's No.10 looked a little off the pace at times and his final ball and shooting were not as clinical as observers have come to expect.
But as the game went on, Messi's influence grew and his artistry became hard to ignore. By the end of the game, he was darting around, evading tackles and poking shots just inches wide in a way that suggested that he could even grow in strength and confidence as the tournament progresses, not grind to a halt.
Messi was unleashed, unhindered and seemed to be having a whale of a time. Every time he got the ball something happened. Even though his performance deserved the goal which never came, it was a display that bodes well for Argentina and the two little men at the heart of this surprisingly close-knit and confident squad.
Even if the claims that Maradona is so egotistical that he would sabotage his own country's chance of glory weren't so outlandish that they should be rejected by the sane-minded, the fact that he has effectively given Messi the canvas on which to create a masterpiece with his formation and tactics should put away those fears for good.
By giving Messi the role he excels in and allowing him the freedom to do what he does best, Maradona is not creating a threat to his own legacy but providing it with the best opportunity to be further enhanced.
Maradona could be the coach who got the best out of Lionel Messi in the biggest soccer tournament on earth, adding a World Cup winner's medal as a coach to the one he collected as a player in the process.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Kyle James