June 6, 2010
Those who worry that Argentina's star-studded team might be overwhelmed by the attention in South Africa can put their minds at ease. One man will dominate the Albiceleste's World Cup, for better or worse, and it won't be Lionel Messi, the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, or any of the other big names in the squad. No, as often happens wherever he turns up, Diego Armando Maradona is bound to draw the spotlight.
Critics complained that handing Argentina to a volatile former player without a creditable coaching résumé was insane, no matter how great he was in the Argentina jersey. Maradona's supporters point out that nobody can match El Diego's aura and that if he can conjure up even a fraction of the otherworldly powers he displayed on the pitch, Argentina will be in business. In fact it's not an entirely far-fetched argument: This team is so gifted up front that Maradona's raw emotion may be just what it takes to put a run together in a short, knockout competition like the World Cup.
Maradona's choices have been inscrutable and seemingly haphazard: Witness his underuse of Inter Milan center back Walter Samuel, which has made a team known for tough, uncompromising defenders look substandard in its own third. What is certain, though, is that Messi will feature heavily in any lineup. The Barcelona maestro lacks Maradona's outsized personality and on-field leadership but recalls the master in his ability to utterly baffle opponents. And Messi is sure to have a talent-laden striker alongside him, whether it's Carlos Tevez or Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuaín or Diego Milito.
Nigeria's Super Eagles are another team going against type. After years of talented, creative attacking and often chaotic, unreliable defending, things have been turned on their head, so much so that John Obi Mikel, usually a no-frills defensive midfielder at Chelsea, is being asked to reinvent himself as a playmaker. Meanwhile, the defense, led by underrated goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and athletic center back Joseph Yobo, is solid and experienced. Trouble is, Nigerian fans don't enjoy this defensive style, which may explain why coach Shaibu Amodu was replaced in the spring by Lars Lagerback. The veteran Swede, who led his home country in the 2006 Cup, has the unenviable choice of playing to the squad's strengths or pleasing the fans, even if this generation of Super Eagles lacks the attacking oomph of years past.
Rounding out the group are two teams that had Cinderella moments earlier this decade. In 2002 host South Korea became the first Asian team to reach the World Cup semifinals, knocking out Italy and Spain along the way and riding a huge wave of nationalist emotion. This time things are a bit different, not least because most of that generation, with the notable exception of goalkeeper Lee Woon-Jae and midfielder Park Ji-Sung, are gone. Much will depend on whether gifted but untested attackers Lee Chung-Yong and Park Chu-Young can rise to the occasion.
Idiosyncratic Greece coach Otto Rehhagel counts his wife, Beate, as an unofficial member of his coaching staff and preaches a stifling, hyper-defensive brand of soccer designed to squeeze every ounce of ability out of an uninspiring squad. Rehhagel masterminded the greatest upset in recent international soccer when he led the Greeks to the European championship in 2004. Don't expect a repeat performance, though: This team is far weaker than the one in '04.
Advancing: Argentina, Nigeria
JOHN OBI MIKEL
KEY MATCH • Argentina vs. Nigeria
June 12, Johannesburg
It's the third time these two teams have been grouped together in the World Cup—Argentina won in both 1994 and 2002. An appetizer for U.S.-England later in the day, this game will give a good idea of whether Maradona is crazy like a fox or out of his depth as a manager.