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Argentina coach Maradona stirs it up in Madrid

Real Madrid's Argentine players welcomed new national coach Diego Maradona, although his first trip abroad on official team business was already causing a stir among them.

sports Updated: Nov 06, 2008 15:19 IST

Real Madrid's Argentine players welcomed new national coach Diego Maradona, although his first trip abroad on official team business was already causing a stir among them. Maradona arrived in the Spanish capital on Wednesday to assess the European-based players he hopes will help the country qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

However, while full of praise for Maradona's hiring, Argentina defender Gabriel Heinze revealed that his decision to strip Inter Milan's Javier Zanetti of the captain's armband was being questioned.

"Here there is a captain who is called Zanetti and you have to respect that," Heinze said. "We still don't know if Javier is going to be captain, he could be, but you have to have a little more respect for Javier Zanetti."

Maradona, who was appointed coach on Tuesday, handed the captaincy to Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano. But Mascherano has been uncomfortable with the news, and was originally unavailable for Argentina's next match against Scotland on Nov. 19. "I haven't spoken to Maradona about anything yet," Mascherano said. "Before he arrived we had a captain in Zanetti, so I don't want to talk about this out of respect for him. But I have to have a meeting with Maradona and then we will talk.

For us he (Maradona) is a legend so it's good for us to have him as our coach but obviously we want to help him settle into the role. "I don't know if I'll be in the squad. I think the (Liverpool) manager was talking to the AFA and I think they had a good meeting."

Heinze was one of four Argentine players Maradona came to see on Wednesday and they didn't make the best impression as Madrid lost to Juventus 2-0.

Heinze played, strikers Gonzalo Higuain and Javier Saviola came on as late substitutes and midfielder Fernando Gago never left the bench.

Still, the presence of the football great was enough to motivate the players vying to make Maradona's squad for when the South American qualifying campaign resumes next year.

"It gives something extra because we know what Diego means to the national team," Heinze said. "He can transmit all that he knows and that is going to help us a lot."

Maradona had arrived at Madrid's international airport to a throng of chanting fans. The 48-year-old Maradona tried to duck out after noticing the waiting press but couldn't find an alternative exit out of baggage claim.

Clad in black and sporting chunky sunglasses, Maradona said he felt "very good as new coach" but declined to speak at length to reporters, blaming fatigue from the long flight. Maradona and new Argentina manager Carlos Bilardo then jumped into a taxi to head to their hotel.

They were also expected to meet with Atletico Madrid's Argentine internationals _ striker Sergio Aguero, midfielder Maxi Rodriguez and goalkeeper Leo Franco. Aguero is expecting a child with Maradona's daughter Giannina.

The match at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium was Maradona's first on a European tour that will take him to Barcelona on Friday to meet with Lionel Messi and Barcelona president Joan Laporta. He will then travel to England to meet up with Manchester United striker Carlos Tevez and Mascherano. After that, Munich, Germany was the next stop. "His presence is important at any field. He was a football icon and we're proud that he came today to see the match," Saviola said. Even Juventus' Alessandro Del Piero beamed after netting his 40th and 41st European Cup goals and first at the Bernabeu. "I'm pleased to have scored in front of Maradona. I hope Diego comes to watch us play more often," the Italy striker said. Though he hasn't featured for the national team since the last World Cup, Saviola could not imagine his Argentina teammates lacking motivation under Maradona.

"Everyone in the world is motivated that Maradona is coach. Not only us Argentines," Saviola said.

Bilardo coached Maradona and Argentina to the World Cup trophy in 1986 and the final in Italy four years later and Saviola couldn't see any fault in that tandem leading Argentina.

"It hasn't started. So we wish them all the luck in the world," Saviola said. "But it still hasn't started so we don't have to put any more pressure on them from what they already have. They are two people who have lived through a lot within football and to us it's a huge honor that they represent our country."

First Published: Nov 06, 2008 15:03 IST