Despite the fact that we were assured over and over again throughout the afternoon and early evening yesterday that Diego had been locked in discussions for four hours thrashing out the 30-man squad, it appears that what he was really up to was preparing a hilarious puff-piece with his buddy, Fernando Niembro. The interview, which went out later that night on Fox Sports, takes place on a football pitch in Ezeiza, where the national team train. There’s lots of walking about, theatrical gestures and pretending to play football – much like a Boca match, actually.
While all the talk so far has been of who will be in the squad, this interview is all about the line-up and how Diego wants the team to play. The team that takes the field against Nigeria on the 12th of June will be the same as the one that we last saw in the 1-0 victory over Germany in March: four centre backs (Otamendi, Demichelis, Samuel, Heinze), Mascherano as the holding midfielder, ahead of him from left to right Jonás, Verón and Di María, and up front Messi in a ‘free’ role and Higuaín “to knock it in”. The full backs will not be expected to attack: “Otamendi and Heinze are there to take the ball off the midfielders if they have to, but I don’t need them to get to the byline and send in crosses. That’s what Jonás and Di María are for!”
But whatever about those midfielders, according to Maradona, there is one man who is key to their destiny, one man who carries all hope of victory on his shoulders, a giant of the game, loved by millions, yes it’s Juan Sebastián Verón! Although Mascherano is the captain, it will be to Verón who that Maradona looks “to be the leader, to take charge of the team, to set the pace. I want Verón to talk to Mascherano, to say ‘let’s push up 15 metres’ or ‘let’s keep it tight’.” Not only that but “Verón is my Xavi.”
The two corpulent gents walked and played with the ball, shoved fingers in each others’ chests and made heart shapes thereupon. It all seemed like a dance:
Maradó: “I haven’t forgotten what the people want …
Fernando Niembro: “… but the people want to win…”
Maradó: “… but, Fernando! [hand on head] That’s what i’m trying to do! That’s what i’m trying to do!”
He then went on to talk about how Messi is from “the Ronaldinho school” of football. “When they played together, he saw Ronaldinho standing way out on the left wing, and he didn’t move from there. So Messi took up a position way out on the left wing. That’s why it’ll be difficult for the kid now to change all the things he learned from Ronaldinho.” A little recondite, this, but I think he just wants Messi to rove all over the attacking third of the pitch resolving crises and launching attacks, like a one-man médecin sans frontières. Besides the fact that, in theory at least, it’s a complete rejection of the Barcelona Way, the only notable thing about his plan is that Messi’s evolution seems to have outstripped it by at least a few months. After all, Ronaldinho left the Camp Nou a few years ago now, and i’m pretty sure we can all agree Messi’s game has gone beyond dribbling in from a static position on the right wing. Odd.
Yet this interview wasn’t about probing questions. It was quite literally a walk in the park. To conclude Niembro asked: “When you’re alone and dreaming, do you ask yourself if this could be like ’86?” His hands behind his back, chuckling heartily as he looks into the middle distance, Maradona replied “No, no, I think [pause] we’ve got a much better chance than in ’86.” After all the shocks, if Xavi, unbeknownst to all, really does play for Argentina, who would doubt him?