x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Maradona waves off his critics

Two thousand Argentines crossed the mighty River Plate from Buenos Aires to Montevideo.

Diego Maradona celebrates Mario Bolatti's World Cup finals-clinching goal against Uruguay on Wednesday night.
Diego Maradona celebrates Mario Bolatti's World Cup finals-clinching goal against Uruguay on Wednesday night.

Two thousand Argentines crossed the mighty River Plate from Buenos Aires to Montevideo. The Uruguayans are used to the influx from their wealthier, more powerful neighbours to the south. From November until February, hundreds of thousands of Argentines traverse the river in search the hedonism and beaches offered in Punta del Este, South America's most glamorous resort on the Atlantic coast.

The Uruguayans take their money, but quietly mock them for being self-obsessed and full of the self-importance which comes with being a regional super power. On Wednesday, when the Argentines sailed through the wind and the rain across the River Plate, it was for a vital win-or-bust World Cup finals qualifier against their old foes, who also needed a win. Argentine fans made the same journey for the first World Cup final in 1930, but the boats were delayed and many missed kick-off as Uruguay won 4-2.

The footballing enmity has existed ever since and 60,000 baying Uruguayans were waiting to bestow their visitors with hostilities in the sweeping, aging, Estadio Centenario - the same venue for that first final 79 years ago. Argentina's current travelling hardcore supporters have seldom doubted Diego Maradona during his chaotic reign as national team coach, in which he has used 80 different players in the group stage alone and often overlooked leading stars.

When Maradona asked for support from a higher power to help Argentina reach next summer's World Cup finals in South Africa, most mocked him. The hardcore prayed. At the end of Wednesday's bruising encounter in Montevideo, which saw nine yellow cards and two reds brandished by the Paraguayan referee, Argentina's 1-0 win was enough for them to qualify for the World Cup finals in South Africa next June.

Maradona left Carlos Tevez on the bench with Pablo Aimar. His prodigious son-in-law Sergio Aguero was not even named a substitute, with the coach going for Newcastle United's Jonas Gutierrez and veteran midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron. World-class players such as Juan Roman Riquelme, Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti were left excluded and confused. Chasing their first victory in Montevideo for 33 years, Argentina were disjointed but ultimately victorious, a late goal from substitute Mario Bolatti the difference between them and an unambitious Uruguay side.

Bolatti, a belligerent midfielder who plays his club football with Huracan of Buenos Aires, was winning only his third cap when he was introduced in the 80th minute for Gonzalo Higuain. His goal came from the free-kick awarded after Uruguay's Martin Caceres was dismissed for hauling down Gutierrez. Victory ended a run of four consecutive away defeats for Argentina. More importantly, it avoided the humiliation of one of the world's great footballing powers playing a play-off to reach the finals.

The vanquished Uruguay, who are versed in such affairs, must now play two games against Costa Rica with the winner heading to Africa. Group leaders Brazil, who were held 0-0 at home to an improving Venezuela, had already confirmed their place in the finals alongside Paraguay and Chile. Ecuador were the team who could have beaten both Argentina and Uruguay to the fourth qualifying position, but their 1-0 defeat in Chile saw them miss out on another World Cup finals. Maradona rounded on his critics after the game, saying: "For those who didn't believe in this national team, for those who treated me like garbage [I say] today we are in the World Cup with all the honours, beating a team like Uruguay."

Argentina lost six and drew four of their games in an inglorious group stage. With the erratic and tactically baffling Maradona in charge, they will surely be dismantled by smarter opponents in Africa, yet bookmakers still favour Argentina above Germany and Italy. Not that a tearful Maradona was thinking too far ahead on Wednesday night as he chose to single out two groups above all others. "I want to thank the whole squad for having given me the privilege of taking Argentina to the World Cup," he said as he celebrated with assistant Carlos Bilardo. "And I want to dedicate this to the fans...who crossed the pond."

Only Maradona could get away with calling the world's widest river a pond. amitten@thenational.ae