When Diego Maradona was named Argentina coach, was I the only person to assume he was merely a nation-galvanising front man to screen the influence of a leaner, meaner operator (or even Ossie Ardiles)?
Results immediately stopped such suppositions in their tracks. Watching the 6-1 defeat in Bolivia late on April Fools’ Day last year, my mind cast back to a brief brush with the man in the dugout – probably six months before his appointment, when a tiny, almost unreally gnome-like figure trotted through the Emirates Stadium players’ entrance after a Champions League game, chirping away in Spanish to all in its path before a manically excited Emmanuel Adebayor virtually lifted it down the tunnel for an impromptu photocall with the Arsenal team. Now, I was watching a figure far more inert, sitting impassively as a rudderless side created a result that felt, altitude or not, like the most elaborate of fictions seen on this day of the year.
They muddled through to the World Cup, and the whole story need not be told here. That Maradona might remain in situ today seemed as big a joke as the result on that spring night – but here we are, 14 months on, with the prevailing assumption being that his Argentina only has a chance of tilting at the trophy if ‘greatest weight of stardust’ becomes the lead criterion for taking it home.
But what harm did a little cachet ever do? Otto Rehhagel could probably have taken a Greek Finance Ministry XI to South Africa this summer without too many words of Hellenic censure, such remains the afterglow of 2004. At 71 he’s still around, failures two and four years ago not having mattered all that much in the grander scheme. His image nowadays is that of the anti-Maradona, really – few frills, a calm exuding of managerial knowhow, little propensity to chop and change personnel. The winning mould he set six years ago, of impenetrable defence and smash-and-grab, ain’t quite broke and will be in play again this time around. Greece defend in straight lines and attack in them too – with the former being very much the priority. They’ll probably get a midfielder or two forward to support a front three that, for all Theofanis Gekas’ qualifying goals, looks one of the tournament’s more toothless – but, as ever, there’ll be far more method than madness.
In which sense, Maradona seems set – tactically at least – on pitching himself as a kind of Rehhagel-lite. There’s at least one straight line in his team – namely a back four of players who’ll rarely stride beyond halfway – and a slightly surprising emphasis on defensive shape that served them effectively in both Uruguay and Germany relatively recently. Perhaps he remembers 1990, when a horrible Argentina side containing just one real, diminutive, star would have won the trophy had it kept some discipline in the final. You certainly can’t see Messi, Di Maria and Higuain getting much support from those behind them – and, to be fair, they probably won’t need it in this group.
Back to the managers, for they are the essence of this particular group – or three-quarters of it at the very least. Whatever the Swedish for ‘hiding to nothing’ is, it was probably invented for Lars Lagerback. Having seen his earlier Sweden sides earn the reputation of being efficient but dull, things became a little more expansive when the likes of Ibrahimovic, Wilhelmsson, Kallstrom and an evergreen Larsson began dovetailing nicely. He now handles a Nigeria side for which something akin to the reverse has become true – the days of Okocha, Finidi, Amokachi, even Babangida if we’re desperate, are long gone (for possible reasons widely mused upon) and, similarly in some ways to Argentina, a flock of respectably-talented forwards is relied upon to make something of the scant resources provided by a stodgy midfield.
Swede seems to be the plat du jour in west Africa right now. You’d plump for Lagerback to find things a little easier than Sven, working with an Anglophone squad and presiding over fewer potentially-errant components – but with a dearth of real flair on the scene he’s going to have to take a leaf out of Rehhagel’s book and ensure that the safety catch is well and truly on whenever Peter Odemwingie et al spring down the flanks.
Rehhagel’s is clearly the act to follow, then, for this sizeable and demonstrably pragmatic proportion of Group B – a trio of sides that will wait for one another and produce few goals. Tactically, nobody does it better – but this isn’t to say that he’s sitting pretty. It’s worth noting that Lagerback beat him 2-0 in Euro 2008, albeit with a significantly more compact and developed set of resources than he’ll enjoy this summer, while I’ve already suggested Maradona’s front three should override tactics to an extent at this early stage. Greece’s lack of individual quality – although Karagounis remains an immensely likeable player – means they’ll have to steal a march or two elsewhere. They know it, and so does their manager; it’s that ‘club side’ thing again.
Incidentally – Argentina, Greece, Nigeria…..haven’t we been here before?
Bulgaria were the other member of that group, and it’s hard to see South Korea making as big an impact as they did. They are, though, another team that bears a manager’s imprint – a good eight years after his tenure ended. Guus Hiddink went big on the Koreans’ innate organisational and energetic qualities, stirring up some fervent support for good measure, and despite fluctuations since then the extra accent placed on these facets still reverberates.
So that’s what we’ll see this time. They’ll probably retain the ball better than any of their opponents but – once more – there’s not too much spark to get carried away about. As far as western eyes are concerned, the novelty element of their northern neighbours’ presence has probably allowed them to sidle further sub-radar than usual. Ji-sung Park is, of course, Sir Alex Ferguson’s grafter-in-chief for the bigger games; Lee Dong-gook wasn’t favoured by Gareth Southgate for many games at all, but you suspect that he and the genuinely interesting Park Chu-young of Monaco might at least get a few strikes in on goal. Even if they end up looking toothless, the side seems reasonably cohesive from front to back, passing neatly and accurately – and you can’t say that with much confidence for their three peers.
I haven’t even mentioned the manager. Huh Jung-moo has had little of my direct attention down the years so I won’t pretend to insight I don’t have – save that his head has bobbed above the South Korea job’s choppy, Dutch-dominated waters on a number of occasions in times of need since 1989. In a group that’s weak on paper, it’s hard to think of three more experienced international managers Maradona could have been pitted against. And that’s why, in the end, Group B really is all about the bosses.
Victory over Greece this month probably wouldn’t merit much eye-bulging on Maradona’s part, current dietary habits pending. It’d probably ensure Argentina top the group, and satisfy a minimum expectation. But as a crash course – if perhaps not quite the higher level module – in pitting one’s wits against fellow World Cup managers it’s a pretty fascinating one. Even allowing for his Messi-style get out of jail card, progressing to the last 16 with something approaching flying colours might just mean we have to take the gnomish one a little more seriously. Argentina, Greece, South Korea, Nigeria will be the descending order – and a neurotic subsequent encounter with Uruguay, Mexico or even France would be something to behold.