Diego Maradona and his stars shining in the chaos in South Africa
By Michael Walker
It seems reasonable to guess that most days of the year the neat, leafy suburbs of Pretoria feel a long way from the sprawling townships of Johannesburg 45 minutes south. That was certainly true on Sunday.
At the pristine playing fields of the University of Pretoria, Diego Maradona led his Argentina squad through training at the same time as news filtered through from Tembisa township that spectators had been badly injured in a stampede before Nigeria’s friendly against North Korea at the Makhulong stadium. Nigeria are Argentina’s first opponents on Saturday.
The images of bloodied fans were not those the world wanted to see or which South Africa wished to project, especially on the day that president Jacob Zuma held a press conference with Fifafa’s head, Sepp Blatter, to declare South Africa ‘ready’ to host the planet’s biggest sporting show.
Blatter had reiterated that the world must give South Africa a chance to prove itself.
‘Bringing the World Cup here is to trust South Africa, to trust Africa and to say, “You are strong and you can do it”,’ he said.
Some of the necessary goodwill will have been lost on Sunday. The timing of the Tembisa stampede was unfortunate; it will confirm in the minds of doubters that South Africa will be unable to stage this tournament smoothly, that Fifa’s trust has been misplaced.
On Sunday night Fifa washed their hands of responsibility, saying they were not in charge of ticketing. There were a few tut-tutters in Pretoria too.
Outside the locked University gates were hundreds of Argentina fans and locals who had been refused entry to the public training session.
Demand for tickets simply outstripped supply and, if there was an element of chaos about the scene, it was of a gentle form. But it was another unhelpful image for the world’s press, some of whom were smuggled into the playing grounds in the back of police cars. Your correspondent was among them.
Once inside, however, the wait was worth it. Maradona’s charisma is even greater than his waistline. The noise that greeted his arrival spoke volumes for his enduring popularity. He will undoubtedly be one of the stories of this World Cup, as he has been so often before.
It was a beautiful end-of-autumn day and the crowd had brought banners with Maradona’s face morphed into that of Che Guevara.
Emerging from the shadow: Argentina are much-fancied in South Africa, largely due to the powers at work on and off the pitch.
The players took their time joining him, and so it was like an assembly line of talent as Lionel Messi was followed by Juan Sebastian Veron, who was followed by Carlos Tevez. There were roars for all.
South Africa’s World Cup had a real buzz about it.
The reports from Tembisa drained some of that atmosphere away, but as gradually more and more of those locked out were allowed in, the buzz returned. Maradona blew kisses. There was a friendly argument with Gabriel Heinze, which Maradona won.
Once Maradona had embraced Messi in a tight hug, Argentina got down to training.
It was in a formation that contained a forward line of Messi, Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and Diego Milito. Veron was supplying them with pinpoint passes. Goals were scored at a rapid rate. The potentially brilliant Benfica winger Angel Di Maria was in the opposition.
It was a display of attacking strength, a tanks-on-the-lawn moment. And that was it, a big all-in practice kickabout. No set-plays, no coaching, just football.
The Bayern Munich defender Martin Demichelis then spoke to a heaving press room, saying: ‘Of course Maradona motivates us, a lot. It is very important that he is the way he is.’
It meant that, for a while, you forgot about Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti, sitting at home. There may come a time when their exclusion regains relevance, when Maradona’s esoteric approach again becomes an issue — he has promised to run naked around a monument in Buenos Aires should Argentina win the World Cup.
But not on Sunday in Pretoria; he was at the centre of the world. But then this is some way from Tembisa.