Over the past year, Diego Maradona has had Argentinians scratching their heads. Why wouldn’t he pick a settled team for the qualification campaign? Instead he chopped and changed his lineup, running through seventy-five players. For a time, it looked like they wouldn’t qualify and when they did, Maradona faced the doubting press corps and told them “they could suck it and keep on sucking it.”
Even then there were doubts. Messi and Maradona were said not to get on, and Diego was thought to prefer his son-in-law, the pint-sized and prolific Sergio Aguero. His final squad did not include Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti, who had both just orchestrated Inter Milan’s Champions League victory. He had too many strikers, not enough midfielders—in short, the Albicelestes were in big trouble.
All of these concerns have turned out to be irrelevant. Argentina is one of the teams of the tournament. They have scored loads of goals, including this monster from Tevez. Messi has been utterly mesmeric, not scoring yet, but regularly drawing not just a double- or triple-team but what quite often looks like the massed ranks of the Napoleonic Guard to defend him, opening up acres of space for his teammates.
On the sidelines, looking like Tony Montana’s best friend, with his diamond earrings, shiny suit, and mullet, has been Diego. He is fantastic to watch, not as potent as when he sliced England apart single-handedly in 1986, but still so involved, kicking every ball alongside his players, and then when forced to substitute them, consoling them with a hug and a kiss.
His opponent in tomorrow’s match is Joachim Löw. The German manager who has single-handedly added the slim-fit cardigan to the wardrobe of soccer coaches. Not for him the shiny warm-up suit or the ill-fitting club blazer. In Germany’s game against England, the camera cut to Löw and his assistants on the bench, where they looked like a Prada ad. On Twitter last week, there were accusations that he was wearing a toupee (his hair is suspiciously glossy).
Both managers have shown a commitment to attacking football; they are the two highest scorers in the tournament. Both managers must know that the weakest part of their team is defense. The only way to negate the power of Messi, Higuain, di Maria, and Tevez is with Özil, Podolski, Müller, and the goal scoring machine that is Miroslav Klose.
Brazil and Holland was a strange game, not the match up of jogo bonito against Total Football that we were hoping for. Both teams seemed crippled by anxiety and Holland in the end got through on an own goal and a set piece. It was like watching England only, you know, competent. The script for Spain–Paraguay has already been written (pass, pass, pass, defend, defend, defend), and the only question is whether Paraguay can hold out for penalties. Ghana is clearly the sentimental favorite. In a tournament noted for a marked tendency towards repression, Germany–Argentina could be the catharsis we’ve all been waiting for.
A note on Brazil who has just crashed out: they’ve been a real disappointment. Carlos Dunga, who has the haircut and demeanor of a staff sergeant with latency issues, was keen to prove that he could win the World Cup by attrition, packing his team with defenders, growling at anyone who dared to suggest that they weren’t that thrilling to watch. They dived, kicked, asked for cards, and played that awful game against Portugal. It’s rare that a tournament can improve because Brazil have gone home.