Designer glasses enhancing his swagger, Diego Maradona entered the cramped media conference area stirring shutter bugs into greater-than-usual activity on Monday.
“Oh, you like it,” he said, obliging photographers, who requested him to keep it on for a while, with a smile brighter than the morning sun that had Loftus Versfeld awash.
Maradona then removed the shades and sat down to take questions, one day before Argentina end group B engagements, against Greece in Polokwane, some 200km from here.
Queries ranged from Higuain, Messi and Mascherano, their availability and ability, his favourites and why South American teams have done well. With trademark poise that has marked all his media interactions here, Maradona answered in detail.
He said South American teams' performance here reflected the tough nature of their qualifiers. “Europe too has a tough qualification process but sometimes you also play Faroe Islands. That can also be a tough match but I guess the teams from Latin America that are here are the ones who are fit for the World Cup.”
“It's been a beautiful World Cup. Some teams came here thinking they were sure of going to the second round. They have been made to work hard. Spain thought the World Cup was theirs and everybody else would play for the second spot. And, Italy? Oh my god, (that seems like) a huge scandal. But I think we will have the usual suspects in the round of 16,” he said.
Asked to list favourites, Maradona started with “my team (which has) a good solid defence and good attack” before mentioning Brazil. “They can take a match when they want to take it, even if they use their arms.” The Argentina coach said he was disappointed with France because “the intrinsic value of the players should have put France on a higher plane.” But it's early days yet as teams are just “revving their engines.”
And though he referred to Brazil as a favourite, Maradona didn't want that label for Argentina.
“We are not favourites and not the lowest team. I know what it is to play a World Cup. We just want to be here to keep the fans happy and play the way we like to play.”
Having scored his last World Cup goal against Greece in 1994, Maradona said he would love it if Lionel Messi got his first here on Tuesday. But it's okay, even if he doesn't. “I am extremely pleased with Leo's performance and the way he keeps his teammates in play. In my time, I was around because the team needed me while others scored goals. It's the same with Messi.”
Maradona admitted to thinking of giving Messi a break but since “Leo always wants to play” and because “it would be a sin” to leave the world's best player out, “he will play tomorrow.”
Right back Jonas Guiterrez is unavailable with a double booking and Argentina, having qualified for the pre-quarter finals, may ring in wholesale changes to the starting line-up which could see Juan Sebastian Veron return.
Maradona called Gonzalo Higuain a “gift” who “was called in at the right time. Some said he still needed to mature but he's fulfilled expectations and has a great future and a spectacular present.”
Greece versus Argentina