It’s been a long and interesting life in football for Diego Armando Maradona. Outrageous talent, uncontrollable egotism, and a tendency towards controversy matched by few others (check out his crazy, stream-of-consciousness autobiography for all the gory details). Since he first laced up his boots as a jinking juvenile at Argentinos Juniors all those years ago, the Argentine icon has played a central role in quite some number of memorable matches. Sadly, the content of Maradona’s managerial career to date has proven rather less memorable. Until the events of Saturday night in Buenos Aires.
A pivotal World Cup qualifier against continental minnows Peru provided the setting for one of the most remarkable climaxes to an international game since, well, Ireland-Italy a couple of hours earlier. Deep into the second half, Argentina (featuring the twin delights of Lionel Messi and Pablo Aimar, but missing suspended Juan Verón, Carlos Tévez, and numerous others by virtue of the manager’s revolving door selection policy) were labouring towards a desperately-needed three points, as they led 1-0 courtesy of a goal from the boot of Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Híguain, making his much-delayed debut. Peru’s Juan Manuel Vargas, of Fiorentina, had earlier struck the Argentina bar with as sweet a left-foot volley as you’re ever likely to see, yet the two-times world champions still looked set fair for the win. Then the heavens opened.
As a diabolical downpour washed around River Plate’s Estadio Monumental, Maradona – who has thus far proved himself to be anything other than a tactical genius – made a series of substitutions which included the half-time introduction of bulky target-man Martín Palermo; the Boca Juniors striker having last been involved at international level nearly 10 years ago. Palermo recently made the record books for scoring the first 40-yard header in professional football, but is better known as the man who fluffed a hat-trick of penalties against Colombia in the 1999 Copa America. His recent recall, at the expense of younger, sharper stars such as Inter Milan’s in-form Diego Milito (now injured, incidentally) had been a contentious one.
The 35-year-old took the field rather than either of Argentina’s supremely talented, but vertically-challenged, forwards Tévez or Kun Agüero. His impact on the second half had been sporadic by the time disaster struck – and struck hard – as substitute Hernán Rengifo headed in a last-minute equalising goal for the visitors, who celebrated joyously amid the squall. All was lost, and Maradona was a dead man walking. Only, that wasn’t the case at all.
Deep, deep into stoppage time the Argentine attack launched itself forward one last time. A cross from the right touch-line eventually found its way to the lurking Palermo. Time stood still as the veteran composed himself to pass the ball into the bottom corner of the net; turning away in an instant to rip off his shirt and celebrate in front of the delirious home support. Maradona, meanwhile, shrugged off persistent doubts about his health by embarking on a Klinsmann-esque diving swan (well, more of a bellyflopping bullfrog) by way of celebration.
Incredibly, there was still time for Peru’s Rainer Torres to strike the Argentinian woodwork again – this time, direct from the kick-off. His remarkable effort was tipped onto the bar and over by an alert Sergio Romero. Had that effort gone in, it would have truly rounded off, with an absurdist twist, a climax which seemed far-fetched enough in any case. The final whistle blew, and a nation celebrated.
Amid the tempest stood two figures, redeemed. For now, at least. The manager and his striker stood locked in a deep and apparently tearful embrace. At half-time, Maradona had apparently told Palermo to “go and resolve this”. Resolve it he certainly did. And with such a sense of dramatic timing too.
“To be honest I never thought I'd experience something like this again. It was hard to think clearly when it was raining so hard and desperation had taken over,” said Los Albicelestes’ returning hero. “This is a reward for all of my hard work; it's one of the happiest days of my life.” Palermo continued: “Men cry too, of course they do. We suffered so much, it was so emotional. A goal like that needs to be experienced and really felt.”
Argentina’s relief was palpable as the dramatic win, which came on the back of three straight defeats, sealed their ascension into the fourth and final qualifying place in the CONMEBOL section. Three points from what is sure to be a tumultuous battle with bitter rivals Uruguay, on Wednesday evening, would now assure Maradona’s men of a trip to South Africa next summer. For all their talent and artistry, on current form they can’t be considered among the favourites; yet the Diego-led circus is sure to be a compelling diversion amid the heat of the battle.