x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Maradona tees off at Pele

The Argentina coach hits out and also has time for harsh words about Uefa president Michel Platini.

Diego Maradona had harsh words for Pele and Michel Platini yesterday.
Diego Maradona had harsh words for Pele and Michel Platini yesterday.

PRETORIA // Diego Maradona is used to the limelight. He has faced almost constant criticism since taking the Argentina reins in October 2008. La Albicelestes struggled their way through qualifying as Maradona continually tinkered with his team, experimenting with more than 100 players in less that 18 months. When he finally announced his 23-man squad last month, he did so with a bang - literally. The 50-year-old drove over a cameraman's foot on his way through a media scrum. He refused to apologise. Since arriving in South Africa, Maradona has taken the attention away from his high-profile players through his outspoken manner and willingness to discuss a range of subjects. Yesterday, in the run-up to his side's Group B clash with South Korea, was no different. Fifa, world football's governing body, rule that each coach must hold a press conference the day before their match at the stadium where the match will take place. Argentina meet the Koreans tonight at Soccer City, yet Maradona insisted in holding his media briefing at Loftus-Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, an hour's drive north of Johannesburg and closer to his team's training base in Tshwane. For the assembled media, however, the spill-out from the coach's answers was, as ever, worth the drive. When asked about the lightweight Jabulani ball, he replied: "I don't want to get into that because everyone is talking about it, but it is important and it does play a part. I'd ask Pele and [Michel] Platini to go and play with it and take a look at the ball and stop talking about me." The retort was partly in retaliation for recent comments by both the Brazilian and the Uefa president. Pele had asserted Maradona was the wrong man for the national job, while Platini insinuated the Argentine was a much better player than he is coach. "Pele should go back to the museum," Maradona continued. "As for Platini, I'm not surprised. We know what the French are like and Platini is French, he believes he's better than the rest of us." When the conversation finally turned to tonight's game, the Argentine appeared hugely confident: "With all due respect, [South Korea] don't have a [Lionel] Messi. They are based on a very strong collective block, they're very fast, they're an excellent team and should be respected, but we are going to win the match." Argentina's only injury concern is Juan Sebastian Veron, the midfielder, who has a calf strain and will be replaced by Maxi Rodriguez. The last time Maradona locked horns against Huh Jung-moo, the South Korea coach, was in the opening match of Argentina's victorious 1986 World Cup campaign when Huh was deployed to stop the diminutive genius in the blue and white stripes. Maradona said last year that he remembered Huh well, "In 1986, the Koreans played taekwondo, not football, against us," he said, but this time around he hopes for the support of the referee. "We're here to see the likes of Messi and Kaka and that's great; we don't want the spectacle to be affected. Referees have to be strict. You have to play a fair match, we don't want to break any legs." Huh still remembers his encounter with the magical No 10. "He was a world-class player and it was so difficult to mark him. That's why there was some physical contact and tussles," Huh recalled at a news conference yesterday. "But when you're playing the game there's always going to be physical contact. It's not intentional, it's just part of the game." Huh, however, bristled at the suggestion he had played dirty. "If I had been doing taekwondo the referee would have pulled out a yellow card," he said, the memory of a thigh-high lunge that left Maradona writhing in agony eluding him for the moment. "It was football, not taekwondo." Huh said he wanted his players to go out and enjoy the game. "When we met Argentina 24 years ago, to tell the truth we were very intimidated," he said. "If you are too intimidated and lose your self-confidence you can't attain anything. That's why I told them to enjoy it." gmeenaghan@thenational.ae Watch Argentina v S Korea (3.30pm), Greece v Nigeria (6pm) and France v Mexico (10.30pm)
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Key battles ? Woon-jae Lee v Lionel Messi Messi could have had a hat-trick against Nigeria were it not for Vincent Enyeama in goal. If the Barcelona playmaker retains his desire to score, Lee, Korea's goalkeeper, will need to be at his most agile to prevent an onslaught. ? Ji-Sung Park v Javier Mascherano Park, the Manchester United midfielder, is undoubtedly South Korea's finest talent. Quick and gifted, with an eye for goal, he can cause La Albicelestes problems and it will be the task of Mascherano to break down any attacks that come through the centre of the field. Tactical analysis Diego Maradona will believe his side have to beat South Korea if Argentina are to top Group B, but he is aware of his opponents' speed and technique. Expect Argentina to be slightly more defensive than they were against Nigeria, while Korea will likely continue to deploy quick counter-attacks. Player to watch Chu-young Park The striker, who plays for Monaco, should have been on the scoresheet against Greece in South Korea's opener. Argentina's defence does not have bundles of pace and Park could exploit that. Last meeting The nations have met only twice, both Argentina victories. Jorge Valdano scored twice in a 3-1 win in the 1986 World Cup group stages, before the South Americans won a friendly 1-0 17 years later in Seoul. Did you know? Today's game comes 56 years to the day since South Korea made their World Cup debut, losing 9-0 to Hungary at Switzerland in 1954.