BUENOS AIRES // Diego Maradona's Argentina survived a turbulent World Cup qualifying campaign to finally clinch their place in South Africa next year with a 1-0 win over neighbours Uruguay on Wednesday. Substitute Mario Bolatti stabbed home the winner in the 85th minute to seal the fourth automatic spot for Argentina, who had been in danger of missing out on the finals after a roller-coaster year under Maradona's leadership.
Maradona, who has used more than 70 players in his time in charge, wept and hugged his coaching staff and insulted the media after Argentina joined Brazil, Chile and Paraguay as South America's representatives in South Africa next year. Uruguay, who finished fifth in the 10-team South American group, will have another bite at the cherry via a play-off with Costa Rica over two legs. It is the third consecutive World Cup qualifying campaign where Uruguay's fate will be decided by a play-off the twice world champions beat Australia to qualify for the 2002 tournament and lost to the same opponents four years later.
Ecuador were the other team who went into Wednesday's matches with a realistic chance of qualifying but their hopes were killed off with a 1-0 defeat in Chile. Humberto Suazo, the competition's leading scorer, scored the winner with his 10th goal of the campaign to leave Ecuador sixth with 23 points, one behind Uruguay. Brazil finished top of the group with 34 points but completed their campaign with a lacklustre goalless draw at home to Venezuela in Campo Grande the first time they have failed to beat their northern neighbours in 19 competitive internationals.
Paraguay (33 points) missed a chance to pip Brazil when they lost 2-0 at home to Colombia, Gustavo Ramos and Hugo Rodallega scoring in the last half-hour. They dropped to third behind Chile on goal difference. Argentina finished fourth with 28, but a defeat against Uruguay, coupled with an Ecuador win on Wednesday, would have seen Argentina miss out on their first finals since 1970. "I have a memory, for those who didn't believe in this team and those who treated me like dirt," Maradona said in a post-match news conference peppered with insults at the media.
Midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron was more measured. "This isn't a celebration, it's a case of getting things off our chest," he said. "We have to think about improving." Nearly all the action happened in the last 10 minutes, starting with a red card for the Uruguay defender Martin Cáceres after a second bookable offence. Veron then lobbed the ball into the penalty area and it fell for Bolatti to score from near the penalty spot.
The Uruguayans also had Cristian Rodriguez dismissed in injury time for fighting. Despite leading Argentina to qualification, huge doubts still surround Maradona's coaching abilities and temperament. Since replacing Alfio Basile in a surprise appointment a year ago, his credibility has been seriously damaged by World Cup qualifying defeats away to Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador and at home to Brazil.
His training sessions have resembled little more than playground kickabouts and some of his selections such as giving an international debut to defender Rolando Schiavi at the age of 36 have been bizarre. One of his gambles paid off on Saturday, however, when 35-year-old striker Martin Palermo scored an injury-time winner to give them a crucial 2-1 win over Peru. * Reuters