Argentina vs. Nigeria: Big test for Argentina's coach Maradona

Argentina coach Diego Armando Maradona was a brilliant player. But as national team manager, there's been more trouble than brilliance – like some of his team picks, for example.

Ricardo Mazalan/AP
From left, Argentina's Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Juan Sebastian Veron, Ariel Garce, Maximiliano Rodriguez and Lionel Messi listen to coach Diego Armando Maradona during a practice session in Pretoria, South Africa. Argentina plays against Nigeria on Saturday.

This is it: The moment of reckoning has arrived for Diego Armando Maradona. It will either be the comeback to end all comebacks or another train wreck. It's with a heavy heart that I am betting on the train wreck.

Maradona was a brilliant player and is a troubled man. In just under two years as national team manager the troubled part has been a lot more evident than the brilliance.

His reign can perhaps best be summed up by the disorganization that surrounded the naming of his squad. Maradona kept journalists waiting for more than three hours before finally revealing his 30 picks, leading some people to think he made up his mind literally at the last minute.

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When he did make the announcement, he inexplicably left out Javier Zanetti and Estebam Cambiasso – both of whom won the treble in an outstanding season for Internazionale – but included Martin Palermo and Juan Sebastian Veron, two once-great players now well past their prime.

Maradona's managerial term has been indecisive, erratic and unconvincing. Under his stewardship, Argentina stumbled through the qualifiers, at one point getting tonked 6-1 by Bolivia, a side that finished second bottom of the 10-team group. It only secured a place in South Africa with a final day win against Uruguay.

Of course, all that will be forgiven if Argentina does well.

Whether they do or not depends on two main factors. One, how well Maradona's aging defense holds up. Defender Walter Samuel was commanding for Inter but an oil tanker can turn faster and if fellow defender Gabriel Heinze spent half as much time on his positional sense as his hair he'd be a better player. And as Maradona's former team mate Osvaldo Ardiles pointed out in the Daily Telegraph this week, going to a World Cup without a recognized right back is just irresponsible.

The second factor is how much he can get out of Lionel Messi. Messi is no stranger to the big time or the pressure that comes with it. But he's struggled when wearing the blue and white stripes.

Maradona has played him deeper than he usually plays at Barcelona and he hasn't turned it on.

Messi himself has flip-flopped a bit the last week. First he told "I can picture us getting to the Final, winning it and holding the Trophy aloft. I haven't even thought about how we'll get there, but I'm convinced we're going to win it."

But then he also said: "If we look at player by player, there is no team better than Argentina. But I don't promise anything."

They start their campaign just as they did in Japan eight years ago, with a game against Nigeria. That is probably not the best omen, for Argentina was knocked out at the opening round back then, in spite of being one of the hot favorites to take the title.

Nigeria finished bottom of that group and while it could go through from this group that also contains Greece and South Korea, I don't think it will go further than the last 16.

Africa's most populous country is also the one that has produced more top class players than any of its continental rivals. But its football is mired in the same corruption and disorganization as the rest of its institutions.

Preparations this time around have been similarly shambolic, with the manager who guided them through the qualifiers being fired and replaced at the last minute with Swede Lars Lagerback. To make matters worse, it lacks a big name such as Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha or Daniel Amokachi.

There could be something tragically symbolic about their final warm-up match against North Korea. Fifteen people were injured when fans battled with police outside the stadium after authorities closed the gates. Nigeria will do well to avoid similar confusion when the competition starts.

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