At 7.25 pm IST, when Diego Maradona walked out on the Ellis Park turf, minutes from his World Cup debut as coach, it was understandable why a posse of photographers whirred into action, their backs to the players.
Twenty-four years after using his hands and feet to telling effect and 16 after his ignominious ouster from this stage, he was back, trying to win the World Cup.
When not watching with arms folded, Maradona prowled about the technical area, gesticulating, punching the air. He walked on to the turf, kissed the players and lifted Lionel Messi.
Going by Saturday’s show against Nigeria, the experiment of 108 players in 20 months has been worth it. Argentina scored in the seventh minute through Gabriel Heinze’s rocket of a header and dazzled for most of the match with Messi, the closest Maradona’s had to a protégé, shining bright.
Messi tormented the Eagles through left-footers goalie Vincent Enyema barely parried, the dummy he sold for Gonzalo Higuain, and his link-ups with Carlos Tevez and Higuain.
“I always want Messi to be close to the ball,” Maradona said. “Football’s worth watching if Messi has the ball. Taking the ball away from him is like taking chocolate from a kid.”
The Nigerians prayed at half-time and before the start of the second half. Argentina’s players merely took their positions. For them, god was in the dugout, Messi was on the field and all was well with the world.