Can Argentina return to the summit of world football?

It has been no secret that for the past two decades since Argentina lost the 1990 FIFA World Cup final to West Germany in the Stadio Olimpico they have sincerely underachieved on the world’s grandest stage.

For a nation who has two stars embroidered above their crest to signify their greatest accolades of winning footballs most coveted title in both 1978 and 1986 they have failed to make it past the last eight since that miserable night in Rome as an Andreas Brehme spot kick ended La Albiceleste’s hopes of retaining their world title.

Fast forward twenty years and with Argentina’s most iconic figure at the helm Diego Maradona, can they replicate their glory days?

When you think of an Argentina team you become aware of the attacking flair and efficient flavour of a side that can not only turn a game on its head with a significant piece of genius and craft but can also show immense grit and determination to grind out results. They have always had a healthy blend in their side of intelligence and ruthlessness.

Of course we think of the likes of Mario Kempes, Gabriel Batistuta and arguably the greatest player of all time Diego Maradona, but with all that world class ability at the forefront of the pitch Argentinean teams have also relied on those in the middle of the park and at the back. Daniel Passarella, Oscar Ruggeri, Roberto Ayala, Diego Simeone, just a few of the great born leaders to have adorned the blue and white stripes.

Men who have worn that shirt bursting with pride with performances to match by taking command and raising the bar. It is an underrated trait to Argentine teams where key players at the back are just as important to those up top.

Maradona is an icon pure and simple. Despite his controversial antics which have blemished a career that is littered with accolades and honours he is undoubtedly one of the greatest players of all time, if not the greatest? His arrival to management was more purely down to his reputation and cult status within in his homeland rather than for his managerial ability.

His side was extremely fortunate to even make it to South Africa and had it not been for a Martin Palermo stoppage time winner in Buenos Aires against Peru back in October we may have been mourning the loss a football superpower not being at this year’s FIFA World Cup. Despite a rocky road to the finals you cannot ignore the talent that is possessed in El Diego’s squad.

Their attacking options are frightening. They have undoubtedly the most formidable choice of forwards out of the 32 nations competing in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ with Maradona opting to take six of them to the big dance. Lionel Messi the world player of the year is the stand out name. He is occupied by Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito, Sergio Aguero and veteran Martin Palermo.

Just last week Diego Milito bagged a brace in the Champions League final and wasn’t even guaranteed a place in Maradona’s squad with the head coach contemplating whether or not to leave him out. Worryingly though despite their star names and ability their scoring record for their national team hasn’t been as prolific as perhaps it should be.

Carlos Tevez who has been banging in goals for fun at Manchester City has only netted 9 goals in 52 appearances and Milito only scoring 4 in 20. Talisman Lionel Messi is not as sharp in front of goal for his nation as he is for his club either as he has netted 13 times in 44 games.

Maradona has sprung two major surprises as he has omitted Internazionale pair Esteban Cambisasso and 36 year old Javier Zanetti who have been so instrumental in their clubs success of achieving the domestic and European treble. Zanetti is Argentina’s most capped player but has fallen out of favour with Maradona who opted to strip him of the captaincy in favour of Javier Mascherano.

Cambiasso’s exclusion is a big surprise. Arguably the best central midfielder competing within Europe this past season finds himself missing out in South Africa despite his heroics in Italy and in the Champions League. It will seem now that veteran Juan Sebastian Veron, once of Manchester United will orchestrate proceedings in the middle of the park with the insurance of Mascherano covering just in front of the back four.

Angel di Maria, Maxi Rodriguez and Jonas Gutierrez will provide the width for the squad who are joined by youngster Javier Pastore who has only ever made one appearance for his national team. His performances in Italy for his club Palermo has received rave reviews and has become a real instrumental part of the Italian side. Maradona has shown faith in the 20-year old by including him in his 23 man squad and this could be an ace in his already star studded pack of cards.

With reigning European champions Spain and Copa America holders Brazil being touted as the formidable forces of the 32 nations, Argentina are surprisingly being considered as an outsider. True, their qualification campaign had been somewhat disjointed but they boast some of the world’s finest stars. In recent times the favourites in a World Cup have failed to deliver.

France would be the stand out name as they were predicted to coast the 2002 World Cup and didn’t even score a goal with them subsequently crashing out in the group stage. Brazil went onto win their fifth FIFA World Cup that year but like Argentina their qualification campaign had been turbulent and narrowly qualified by just three points ahead of Paraguay, Uruguay and Colombia respectively.

Pele even predicted that Luis Felipe Scolari’s team would not even make it past the group stage. An unimaginable prediction by their greatest ever player, but how wrong could he be? Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo masterminded their assault on acquiring their fifth World Cup despite not being given a prayer as well as being labelled the worst Brazilian team in history prior to the finals in Japan and South Korea.

What really matters is what escalates over the course of a month during the finals. Argentina is a team that nobody will want to face. Not only do they have the best player in the world in their ranks along with some of the most feared attacking options on the planet they have a heart the size of Buenos Aires itself that beats with so much panache when those sky blue and white stripe jerseys are adorned.

It cannot be underestimated that with Diego Maradona at the helm not to see an Argentine side with the attributes of warriors and leaders who are proud to continue the tradition of former greats proudly representing their nation. Diego knows himself what it takes to win a World Cup as he did it back in 1986.

Despite his doubters no one can question his passion for Argentina. He has even said he will strip naked if his side are victorious in Soccer City come July and knowing Maradona as we do it would hardly be a surprise if we end up witnessing that scene.

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Portugal, welcome to South Africa