Seven a.m. on a Sunday morning. The last thing anyone in their right mind would want is a drugs raid. But that's exactly how Argentina's squad -- preparing to kick off their World Cup Finals campaign against Nigeria this Saturday -- awoke five days ago. Well, it wasn't exactly a drugs raid, more of a routine doping test, which FIFA are likely to conduct throughout the tournament. But the fact that it is both routine and according to rule does not lighten the surprise element. Argentina's staff took offense. "It is disrespectful," Fernando Signorini, the physical trainer, told anyone who cared to listen repeatedly over the ensuing days. "We had planned to wake up at a certain time and had our morning schedule sorted and then they arrive announced and wake everyone up."
What exactly had been scheduled for morning activities will remain a mystery, as Thursday, with just two days to go before the big launch, morning training was cancelled once again. Apparently, Maradona and his staff believe the players need to rest. Now, Maradona has never been an early bird and for much of his tenure as manager of the national squad the notion that his lie-ins got in the way of morning training became the topic of some mockery among observers. But now, so close to the real thing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see the funny side.
The squad has kept its cards close to its chest since arriving in Pretoria almost two weeks ago. With the controversial cancellation of scheduled friendlies due to wrangles over money, the last proper match Argentina played was on home soil; a friendly against Canada in which, coinciding with celebrations of the bicententary of Argentina Independence, the squad managed to find the back of the net a handful of times thus working the crowd up into a patriotic frenzy. The reality is that most of the Canadian players seemed more interested in huddling round Messi and Maradona himself seeking photo-ops and autographs was mentioned in passing by reporters. Moreover, most of the emphasis was on celebrating the goal-fest amid ticker-tape and multitudes swarming the streets for a combination of football celebrations and folkloric open air concerts.
Football in all its populist splendor is high on the agenda of the current government, but Maradona also loves the people partying. Sources close to him within the camp say he requested audiovisual recordings of El Chaqueño Palavecino , a traditional Argentinian singer of chamames, during his free recital to crowds gathered round the Obelisc; Buenos Aires' landmark monument downtown.
The Obelisc is where crowds traditionally gather to celebrate football victories or march against authorities. It is also where Maradona claims he will run naked if Argentina win the World Cup. The focus on his every word, however farfetched, bizarre or meaningless is such now, that even Brazilian legendary manager Zagallo has reacted with a display of dirty humor: "And where will Maradona sit if Argentina lose?" he said in an interview with Sao Paolo's O Jornal , "On the Obelisc?" no doubt fully intending the phallic shape of the national monument to goad the imagination for full effect.
Undoubtedly many round the globe would like Maradona to shove more than the national monument up where he himself accused journalists in an international press conference of having 'it' stuck deep inside a few months ago. However, far from generating conflict and causing endless headlines, the cigar puffing ex-addict has been remarkably low-key. Spanish paper El Mundo titled a piece "Maradona's strange calm" as if even by doing nothing and saying less the legend merits headlines.
Apart from his request for a luxury bidet to be installed in his suite back in a recent visit in January -- and although mocked by the international press more recently for this grandiose gesture, it is only fair to point out it pales in comparison to Mr Blatter's specifications for a themed lavatory for his personal use at the five-star hotel where he is based -- Maradona has not yet put a foot wrong.
Argentinian journalists are no less disappointed with the lack of access to this quiet fortress. They have had their pens busied by the inevitable potential of organized Bara Bravas, or hooligans, travelling to South Africa. First, some 40 or so fans travelled in the same plane as the squad and the AFA delegation. Next, a few days ago, 10 known perpetrators of violent behavior around Argentine soccerl were deported as soon as they set foot in South Africa. How they finance their travels, who encourages them to come along, and the means by which they obtain tickets to matches is all part of an ongoing social tragedy back home which will neither be resolved nor satisfactorily addressed during the following few weeks.
But Interpol and the South African police are working closely with delegates of each nation's law enforcers -- rather like the doping tests, it may aggrieve some, but at the end of the day it is the rule book that allows the tournament to stand a chance of unfolding smoothly.
In the meantime, behind closed doors, it is believed Maradona is still trying to figure out a way to play Carlos Tevez in his oening lineup. Speculation, and that's all it can be at this stage, is that he will line up Sergio Romero; Martin Demichelis, Walter Samuel and Gabriel Heinze; Jonás Gutiérrez, Javier Mascherano, Seb Verón and Angel Di María; Leo Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín and Tevez.
The human factor of the group is reported to be getting stronger by the minute. The intimacy and privacy, closely guarded by the police, are said to be working. "I have many caciques (chiefs) within the group" Maradona told a select press posse before leaving Buenos Aires. Heinze, Veron and Mascherano among them. His tactical indications seldom go beyond a "well done!" or "that's it, that's it!" but his devotion to the notion of national pride, popular joy and love for the ball may well be enough if the profesionally excellent individuals find their game -- between barbecues and siestas they may just get enough fire in their belly to roar come Saturday when facing Nigeria.
Even Zagallo, setting aside the irony, pointed out that "The Argentina of the qualifying rounds is now behind us and now deserves caution. The national strip is still a favorite to do well, and as football is not an exact science there is no reason to doubt its potential.
As for the drugs test, the result of which is expected over the coming hours, there is no need to fear. After all, as Jiri Dvorak, FIFA's medic said "There has not been a single positive since 1994." That would be Maradona against Nigeria.