South America’s gauchos are renowned for toughing things out in harsh conditions — but few would see much wisdom in changing their horses in mid-stream.
Two-time world champions Argentina did just that last November in appointing Diego Maradona — national hero as a player, but a coaching novice — as the man to lead them towards next summer’s World Cup finals in South Africa.
By Wednesday night, the albiceleste and their fans will know whether the decision to bring in el pibe de oro (the golden boy) to replace Alfio Basile was inspired or crass.
Basile made a mediocre start to the qualifiers but, under Maradona, things have gone from bad to worse and failure to beat Uruguay in Montevideo will leave his team having to limp through the playoffs against an opponent from Central America.
Should Argentina lose on the ‘unlucky’ 13th of the month they may not even make the playoff — if Ecuador, two points behind them, win in Chile.
That a team boasting the talent of Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez, to name but two, should be having to walk the razor’s edge as they tiptoe towards South Africa says much for the current state of morale in the squad.
Argentina just edged minnows Peru at home last Saturday after Martin Palermo, a veteran who once missed three penalties in one international, managed to find the net in stoppage time.
Now Messi and company have to show that six defeats in 17 games were mere accidents rather than symbolic of a team which does not have a strategy.
Basile resigned with Argentina third in the group after 10 matches, seven points adrift of then leaders Paraguay.
But Maradona has struggled to make an impression since then, with the lowpoint coming in a 6-1 hiding, albeit at altitude, in Bolivia.
Brazil, Paraguay, and Chile have already booked their passage but the Uruguayans, world champions in 1930 and 1950, are just a single point behind Maradona’s men and a home success will give them the fourth and final automatic berth.
Midfield veteran Juan Sebastian Veron returns from suspension but Palermo will start on the bench as Gonzalo Higuain and Messi spearhead matters. Palermo insists Argentina will roll their sleeves up and fight.
“It’s going to be another final and we have to go over there and play for our lives,” he said
But a ghost from Argentina’s past, 1978 champion and top goalscorer Mario Kempes, suggests much of the blame has to be laid at Maradona’s door.
“There appears to be a problem of communication. On the field it’s clear the players don’t understand what he is asking of them,” Kempes said.
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez says that qualifying “is in our own hands”. Brazil, despite their Bolivian hiccup, face Venezuela at home in their final qualifier.