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Argentina boasts Lionel Messi, the world's best soccer player, but it won't shine at games unless the players and coach work as a team.
Argentina World Cup Team Statistics: Group B
Status: Advance to round 16, advance to quarterfinals, knocked out of semifinals.
World Ranking: 7
World Cup 2010 Results: 4-0-1
Total goals scored: 10
Total goals scored against: 6
Every World Cup coach would like to be burdened with the problem of Lionel Messi. Messi, the superstar who, at 22, is almost certain to win his second consecutive World Player of the Year award, has never fit quite as neatly in the Argentine attack as he does with his Barcelona club team.
He has only scored 13 goals in 44 appearances for the national team while he netted 34 goals in 35 games with Barcelona. Some Argentineans have come to believe that Messi, who has lived abroad for a decade now, simply doesn’t have his heart in the game when he plays for Argentina. But more likely is that the coaches haven’t been willing to construct an attack — a short-passing offense a la Barcelona — around Messi.
That certainly won’t happen now that the coach is Diego Maradona, the greatest player in the nation’s history with an ego to match his stature. Just how dysfunctional does Argentina appear? Sportswriters wonder aloud if Maradona might not sabotage his star player rather than relinquish his singular stature in the nation’s soccer pantheon.
The truth is nobody can predict what Maradona will do because nobody seems to understand anything he has done yet. Argentineans are rightfully proud of their country’s soccer tradition. They want their team to win and to win playing the game the right way — with skill and passion. They want Messi to rise to the occasion and, in the end, belong to them just as Maradona does.
Argentina World Cup History: Argentina is a perennial contender, winning the Cup in 1978 and 1986. But since it reached the finals in 1990, Argentina has not progressed past the quarterfinals — and even bowed out after the first round in 2002.
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Argentina World Cup Conventional Wisdom: Argentina has the best player in the world and a dazzling array of talent with which to surround him. That explains why it is the fourth betting favorite (behind Spain, Brazil and England) at most sports books. But fourth is a familiar position. That’s where Argentina finished in the South American qualifying round, as its talents failed to mesh. Argentineans believe a strong Cup showing is possible, but no more likely than an implosion stemming from the collision of giant egos.
Argentina World Cup Team Coach: Diego Maradona
The soccer world was stunned when, in the middle of a stumbling qualifying campaign, the team turned to the legendary Maradona. Maradona had only meager coaching experience and his post-soccer life had been one of alcohol and drug abuse that almost killed him several times. Though Maradona seems healthy again, the team never found its footing and barely squeaked through, only claiming South America’s fourth spot — with a win on a goal in the waning minutes — in its final qualifying game.
Argentina World Cup Team Strength: Messi may be the biggest talent, but the lineup is loaded front to back, especially on attack.
Argentina World Cup Team Weakness: Maradona is inexperienced, mercurial and a constant puzzlement. Nobody understands the coach’s decisions — not his training methods, not his tactical ploys and certainly not his personnel decisions. Many regard it a major mistake to leave veterans like Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso off the roster. The two defenders may be aging, but they once again proved their leadership and their mettle with Inter Milan this year.
Argentina World Cup Key Player: Lionel Messi
This season sportswriters ran out of superlatives, trying to describe the moves and footwork of this unparalleled soccer magician. Most have blamed the coaches for his inability to excel in the same fashion with his national team. It seems unlikely that Maradona will adjust his approach to accommodate one talent, even a prodigious one. So it is really up to Messi to get past his emotional reticence and find a way to shine. He is capable of delivering transcendent game — and tournament — changing performances out of any offensive formation or approach.