Saying he saw shades of himself in Javier Mascherano, hoping that Lionel Messi will blossom and with a dig at Pele, Diego Maradona stamped his presence on the 2010 finals, a day before Argentina kick-off against Nigeria.
Exactly 12 hours after a closed-door training session, Maradona spoke to the world media at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium here. Stating that he is more at ease now than he was as a player because he knows the boys will "bail me out," the Argentina coach highlighted the ability of the national jersey to stir passion.
"I have 23 players in top shape. I want the players to be like fighters. And when I look at them now, I feel immense pleasure," he said on Friday.
Maradona also said he wouldn't like to highlight individuals in his squad but then mentioned skipper Mascherano, saying the hurdles the midfielder has overcome reminds "him of me". When conversation veered to Messi, Maradona said what the world wanted to hear. "Messi will have the time of his life in this World Cup."
Wholesome praise though was reserved for Angel de Maria. "He doesn't just hug the left side of the park anymore. He can overrun defenders seven times in a match. He is worth every cent of the millions they pay him."
Maradona hoped Nigeria wouldn't play rough and urged FIFA to uphold the sanctity of fair play. "Time was when I would be kicked around and adequate punishments not given. FIFA must enforce fair play. We want people to watch football."
He said he hadn't seen all the 32 teams play but felt that Portugal and Ivory Coast have enough ability to give Brazil a run for their money. And Spain, he said, are playing spectacular football even though their 6-0 win against Poland was against an under-strength team.
Maradona felt South Africa deserved to host the World Cup and had "worked from dawn to dusk" to ensure that it goes off successfully. And then, he made a veiled reference to Pele, saying he didn't agree with a former No. 10 that the World Cup shouldn't come to Africa because of the attack on the Togo team.
The strike force
Johannesburg (AFP adds): Maradona is set to unleash his formidable trio of goal poachers to get Argentina off to a flying start against Nigeria here on Saturday.
The two-time world champions boast a salivating forward line of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain and coach Maradona in tinkering with pitching in all three in an attacking 3-4-3 formation at Ellis Park.
Between them the dazzling trio netted more than 80 league goals last term for Barcelona, Manchester City and Real Madrid.
Argentine fans' favourite Tevez said he hoped to “get the chance to show the coach what I can do. We have great players (and) don't feel my place is assured.”
The Argentines may have stumbled across the finish line in qualification for South Africa 2010, but Maradona has at his disposal a squad of sumptuous talent in his first World Cup as coach.
Indications are that Maradona, who inspired Argentina as the world's greatest player to World Cup triumph in 1986, will go with a three-man backline enabling him to field a three-man strikeforce.
Marseille centrehalf Gabriel Heinze said this week that “Argentina will always go after the game” and not sit tight and be ultra-cautious.