Argentina bumbled through World Cup qualifying, making it to South Africa without recourse to a playoff thanks largely to an injury-time winner from
That is partly because Messi is such a phenomenon that, even in a world in which systems are far more important than individuals, he makes anything seem possible, but mainly it is because Argentina has done this before. In 1986, it was Maradona playing the Messi role, while the unpopular coach with the bizarre selection policy was
As a player, Bilardo helped Estudiantes to three straight Copas Libertadores, developing a reputation as somebody who would stop at nothing to win. He carried that mentality into coaching and was condemned by those who wanted Argentina to play the sort of expansive football it had in winning the 1978 World Cup.
"I like being first," Bilardo said on his Web site. "You have to think about being first. Because second is no good, being second is a failure. ... For me, it's good that if you lose you should feel bad. Football is played to win. ... Shows are for the cinema, for the theater. ... Football is something else. Some people are very confused."
In the early part of his reign, Bilardo himself was widely perceived as being confused, as Argentina won just three of his first 15 games, a run that included a humbling exit from the Copa America and a defeat to China in a mini-tournament in India. Argentina toured Europe in September 1984 and when Bilardo read out his team to face Switzerland in the first game, his reputation had sunk so low that it was widely assumed he had made a mistake.
"They told me I was wrong, that I'd named three central defenders," he said. "But I told them they should not panic, that everything was well. We were going to use three defenders, five midfielders and two forwards. We had practiced it for two years, and now I was going to put it into practice in tough games."
Argentina beat Switzerland 2-0 with the new system, and went on to beat Belgium and West Germany; the foundation was there. Whether Bilardo then hid his plan away, saving it for when it really mattered, or whether he simply kept tinkering is unclear, but Argentina's form heading into the 1986 World Cup was pitiful. It routed Israel 7-2 in its last warm-up game, but that was its first victory in seven games. As Maradona put it in his autobiography, fans watched Argentina's opening game against South Korea "with their eyes half-closed."
Argentina won comfortably enough, and progressed through the groups before beating Uruguay in the quarterfinal. Initially, Bilardo had used a 4-4-2, before switching to deploy
Then, against England, Bilardo went back to the master plan (much as
"You can't play against the English with a pure center forward," he explained. "They'd devour him, and the extra man in midfield will give Maradona more room."
So Maradona played as a nominal second striker, but given the freedom to roam wherever he saw fit by the defensive platform behind him. It
Would a side with wingers have overrun Argentina? Possibly. It could be argued that its central midfield three of Batista, Enrique and Burruchaga would have dominated possession, but when England finally brought on
West Germany played its own version of 3-5-2 in the final and deployed
Never before or since has there been such a sense of a player winning a tournament single-handedly, but Maradona could only do it because of the tactical switch before the quarterfinal that gave him the freedom he needed. Messi has the potential to do the same in South Africa. The question is whether Maradona has the potential to let him.