The thought Cotton Bowl conjures up countless memories for me - some joyous, some disappointing. However, one memory stands out above the others because it irrevocably changed how I saw athletes.I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a place where kids learn to kick a soccer ball before they learn to walk. From an early age, we followed soccer and we idolized the albiceleste: our national team's nickname for their light blue and white jerseys. Even after we moved here in the early 80's and immersed ourselves in American sports, no one, not Jordan, not Montana, not Marino nor Elway, captured our imagination as kids more than Diego Maradona. He was the greatest and most recognizable athlete on the planet at the time.
Maradona cemented his legacy in the 1986 World Cup, scoring his most famous and most infamous goals against England-- the "goal of the century" and the "hand of god". If you ask any Brit they'll tell you that Britain would gladly trade the Falklands for that game. Maradona notched 5 goals and 5 assists that Cup, played every minute of every game, and took down England and West Germany to win the championship. He was brilliant, the best since Pele for sure.
The 1994 World Cup brought us one last chance to see Maradona play for the Albiceleste. Most importantly, I had the chance to see his last World Cup in person. There we were, my dad and I, riding on a chartered bus full of Argentines and singing every word of the soccer equivalent of a fight song. We were on our way to see Argentina play Bulgaria at the Cotton Bowl. We were going to see Maradona. But halfway into to trip the bus fell silent with the news that Diego had failed a drug test and would not play. I was crushed. Argentina lost that day, but I barely remember the game.
Today, against the backdrop of a new superstar Argentine footballer expected to own the tournament, Maradona tries to add another chapter to his legacy and atone for his biggest mistake. The question is whether or not Maradona's ego will allow him to take the reigns off of Lionel Messi and allow Messi --and not Maradona-- to carry his team to the final.
Argentina's ability to win the World Cup begins with Lionel Messi, arguably the best soccer player in the world. Messi's game resembles Maradona's the way Kobe's game resembles Jordan's. Both Messi and Maradona are diminutive pinballs that shed defenders through speed, aggression, and sheer will. While most soccer players keep the ball a stride or two ahead of them as the sprint, Messi, like Maradona, can seemingly run at full speed and maintain contact with the ball at all times.
Like his predecessor, Messi beats doubles teams through a combination of technical skills and unparalleled creativity. His gaze is always down field and he's equally deadly spotting a lazy goalkeeper or an open teammates. When it time to make a shot on goal, Messi can flick the ball over a goalkeeper's head or he'll pinpoint a shot deep into a corner. Sounds like too much praise to heap on a 22 year old? Ask Arsenal.
(goals are at the 0:58, 2:05, 2:52, & 4:21 mark)
But Messi and Maradona do have their differences. First while Messi is good on set pieces and has a strong left foot, Maradona was absolutely SICK. Second, Maradona was a hot-headed player, brutal player who wasn't afraid to go right at the most physical defenders and he had the personality to boot. Messi is a quieter, seemingly aloof player, who plays soccer the way someone does when they have no clue how good they are.
With Barcelona, Messi plays just off of the front line and on the right side. With a strong striker, Ibrahimovic, ahead of him, Messi is able to operate in space where he is deadly. However, with the national team, Messi does not have an imposing striker like Ibrahimovic, nor does he have another top footballer like Thierry Henry on the opposite wing. Therefore, Messi will be swarmed by at least two, and probably three defenders until someone else can show that they are a threat to score with regularity. Aside from Messi, Argentina has several veteran players with significant international experience. Among the notables are:
Diego Milito - the Inter Milan, 6 foot center-forward is coming off his most impressive game as a pro, scoring two goals in the Champions League Final vs Bayern Munich. Milito was consistent for Milan, scoring 22 goals in 35 appearances.
Gonzalo Higuain - 22 year old, 6'1" striker for Real Madrid came in second to Lio Messi in goals scored this year in the Spanish league. Higuain is somewhat new to the national stage and has only notched 5 appearances before the 2010 Cup, however.
Juan Sebastian Veron - Veron is the elder statesman of the team and will be relied upon to control the ball in midfield. He will organize a possession from the middle third of the pitch, and will not venture to close to the box. Physically, Veron does not match up well against faster midfielders, however he makes up for it with smart play, crisp passing from a distance, and powerful kick on set pieces. If things are going bad for Argentina, Veron will be subbed out for a more attacking midfielder.
Angel Di Maria - Di Maria is a 22 year old phenom who has a penchant for exceeding expectations. He build a good rapport opposite Messi in their 2008 gold medal showing in the Olympics, scoring the game winner in the final against Nigeria. Di Maria is expected to start and his play on the left wing is critical to Argentina's success because it could potentially make teams pay for double and triple teaming Messi.
Maxi Rodriguez - Maxi is an attacking midfielder who is comfortable playing up the wings. He will be relied upon to find opportunities in space for Messi and the forwards.
The biggest weakness on this team will be the midfield and the defense as usual. As you are probably aware, South Americans aren't the tallest people in the world. So while European back lines easily average over 6 feet tall, ours is barely 6 feet with cleats on (and I think that's still a little generous). Of these, Demichelis, Samuel, Burdisso, and Heinze are the most experienced players who should see the majority of the playing time. In the midfield, there is not enough play-making ability to threaten the top defenses in the world in later stages.
Argentina faltered throughout the regional qualifying and the team looked to be in complete disarray. Messi was not utilized properly, players were shuffled constantly, and the defense allowed lesser teams to score repeatedly. This spring however, the team appears to have turned a corner and appears to be gelling ahead of the tournament. Some of this may have to do with Maradona and Messi finally appearing to be on the same page after having at least one meeting.
Argentina will start games cautiously, knowing that they are deadliest when they aren't playing catch-up. The team will look for opportunities to counter attack with speed and will try to wear out opponents. They will advance the ball through technical dribbling and short, touch passes within groups of three players. The "give-and-go" is a staple of Argentine soccer, as well as back heel taps and toe flicks. On the other hand, we rarely will move the ball through the air and if we make a header for a goal, it was probably an accident. Vertically challenged, remember?
Keys to Success
Argentina is widely expected to make it through their group easily, and if they don't Maradona will probably need to hide out in the Serengeti for the foreseeable future. However, making a run deep into the elimination stage will require someone to take some of the burden off of Messi's shoulders. To me, that guy will either be Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, or Diego Milito. My money is on Di Maria because he should see the most favorable matchups on the side opposite Messi. Secondly, Argentina will need solid play from its relatively green goalkeepers - either Pozo or Romero. Neither has significant international experience at this level, so they will need to get comfortable in a hurry.
Argentina should advance out of Group B in first place and would face the 2nd place team in group A -- possibly South Africa. I expect them to win that match, but fall in the quarterfinals. The team has a talented superstar, but not enough talent in the midfield to win it all.