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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Hand of God, Random Squad

In a week that contained plenty of ‘surprises’ masquerading as surprises (Chelsea miss a penalty in a major final, a senior FA employee is the victim of a pretty lady and a national tabloid), the announcement of the provisional World Cup squads at least brought some genuine incredulity to proceedings. I’m not talking about England, either, for whom any lingering notion that Capello would pick players purely on form was quashed with few surprises. You can probably pick his starting XI against the USA right now, injuries permitting (go on then: James, Johnson, Ferdinand, Terry, Cole, Barry, Lampard, Gerrard, Walcott, Heskey, Rooney). Elsewhere around the world, the outrage expressed on behalf of Bobby Zamora in England was perhaps more suitably outpoured for the Argentineans not fortunate enough to make Diego Maradona’s squad.

Given that Maradona has called up around 100 players in the year and a half he has been in charge of the national team, perhaps predicting his squad was always going to be totally impossible. However, given what we know of the Champions League and Serie ‘A’ this year, for him not to find room for Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti – who has 136 caps – is particularly surprising.

The case for the defence rests even less easy when it transpires that Maradona has also omitted Barcelona centre back Gabriel Milito and included Fabricio Coloccini. Who plays for Newcastle (and since this article was written, has been dropped as the squad was trimmed from 30 to 23).

Actually, the situation is more than surprising. It is borderline unbelievable. The tributes that have flowed out of the San Siro for Zanetti following Inter’s fifth successive title – Moratti reckons it’s been his best season ever – are for a man who has played every minute of all but one match, for which he was suspended. He may be 36, but he can play all over the pitch and he is an experienced international defender. A falling-out has been speculated over since the final World Cup qualifier, in which Zanetti apparently gathered the team around him on the pitch and re-calibrated the side, dismissing Maradona’s earlier team talk. More reason than ever to include him, you might argue.

Inter’s Argentine defenders are represented solely by Walter Samuel, who hadn’t had a look in under Maradona until the March friendly against Germany, but has presumably been included only on that basis – one would think his outstanding form domestically has helped. By that line of thinking it is even more bewildering that in midfield, Esteban Cambiasso should miss out, given that he spent a season imperiously nullifying Italy and Europe’s best – Argentina’s great hope Messi included. Considering the form and domestic woes of Cambiasso’s direct peer, Javier Mascherano, this season, his omission is all the more surprising. However, the continued presence of Seba Veron at the expense of Juan Roman Riquelme should leave no-one in any doubt that Maradona, when faced with two choices, will invariably pick the wrong Juan. Links between defence and attack, should Veron’s legs go, are scarce.

Maradona’s career has become feted and questioned in equal measure over his preference for including Argentine-based players ahead of more illustrious European counterparts. Of the 96 players used by Maradona in the last 12 months, 52 are based in Argentina. All well and good, but amazingly, only five of the 52 (Juan Sebastian Veron, Ariel Ortega, Federico Insua, Martin Palermo and Clemente Rodriguez) have more than six caps and most, therefore, are new under Maradona. Of those five, Veron (age 35, 69 caps), Palermo (36, 13 caps) and Rodriguez (28, 11 caps) are in the provisional squad. The other seven Argentine-based players in the squad have a total of 19 caps between them and all appear to have sprung to prominence in recent friendlies against Spain, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Germany and Haiti. A rigorous selection process it is not.

Maradona is, however, blessed with a strike force the envy of the world. Argentina’s embarrassment of riches in the forward areas is the sole remaining reason, despite Maradona’s best efforts, that some believe they can still be tipped for the World Cup. Messi. Tevez. Higuain. Di Maria. Milito. Aguero. Awesome. Are they unstoppable? Potentially. Any lingering doubts about the frailties at the back could be vanquished if the ball can be kept at the other end of the field.

FIFA’s much maligned and probably useless rankings reckon Argentina are the seventh-best team in the world. However, they have not been beyond the quarters of the World Cup since 1990. That said, offsetting Maradona, football’s crackpot, are stellar striking options, fresh new caps who have been playing in their homeland in the build-up to an international tournament and capable, if unspectacular veterans. Once Maradona has been forced to settle on just 23, and maybe even despite his tactics, it would be a brave, but not necessarily foolish man who backed Argentina this summer. Focusing on the inclusions rather than the omissions may lead you to do just that. Rob MacDonald

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