Johannesburg: Expect Maradona to turn up at Argentina`s next match in a tie-dye T-shirt, waving incense sticks and singing "Kumbayah." Because his masterplan for winning the World Cup is now crystal clear: He`ll do it by smothering his players in lashings of love.
Just a few months back, Maradona was in the doghouse, banned by FIFA, for a foul-mouthed rant. Now he`s donning a suit for games and talking like a New Age guru of the "good vibes" in the Argentine camp, of the "very beautiful" experience of living another World Cup and about how footballers respond better to heart-to-heart talks than to big sticks.
Most striking of all, Maradona showers his players with kisses and hugs both before and after games. Tough taskmasters like England coach Fabio Capello wouldn`t be caught dead doling out so much as pecks on the cheek. But Maradona grabs hold and won`t let go, nuzzling players affectionately with his graying beard. No one gets left out.
"All the love is just being grateful for their effort," says the cuddly one.
Bizarrely, the softly-softly approach seems to be working. The very difficult birth of Maradona`s team – he looked at more than 100 players before deciding on his 23 for South Africa and came within a whisker of not qualifying – is slowly being forgotten with each, progressively more convincing World Cup performance. Argentina is still a work in progress but is gelling before our eyes.
Few would have bet on that happening before the World Cup. With Maradona in charge, there seemed to be a huge risk of it simply imploding. Now, it already has one foot and four toes in the next round, after humbling South Korea 4-1 to give it six points at the top of Group B.
Lionel Messi, the player Maradona will most need if Argentina is to reach the final on July 11, is starting to look genuinely comfortable. That has been a long time coming but was so worth the wait.
Messi used to wear the No.10 shirt that Maradona made famous as a player like a lead-weight, bowed by the huge burden of Argentine expectations. Now radiating confidence in South Africa just when it counts the most, Messi is beginning to fully express his absurd abundance and array of talents, making if not yet scoring goals. He played a role in three of the four Argentine goals against the South Koreans.
Although as unassuming as a turtle in its shell off the field, Messi is growing as a leader on it. That was clear from the way he ticked off Gabriel Heinze for drifting out of position as the Koreans were looking to equalize after Park Chu Young`s own goal gave Argentina the lead after 17 minutes.
Messi jabbed a finger at the spot on the field where he wanted the defender far older and more experienced than him to go.
Messi will have better days than he did against the South Koreans, which was a seven or an eight out of 10 performance by his stratospheric standards.
But even when not scoring himself, Messi tears open holes in opposing teams by drawing defenders to him - two or three at a time in the case of the South Koreans. His rattlesnake runs, when not capped with a goal, panic defenders into making rash tackles, producing free kicks. Carlos Tevez fizzed one of those over the Korean crossbar. On other days, they will go in.
The Argentine frontline combination of Tevez, Messi and Gonzalo Higuain looks like it could score goals by the bucket-load. They each bring different weapons to the fight. Tevez wins and keeps balls with his sheepdog-like energy and bulldog-like tenacity. Messi cuts through sides with his sudden accelerations and ball glued to his laces. Higuain
brings strength and height - he scored two of his three goals Thursday with his head.
The three of them are not always finding and linking up with other. Tevez howled when Higuain took a wasteful shot at goal instead of passing to him on the penalty spot, where he was unmarked. But at other times, they looked overwhelmingly threatening. In Sergio Aguero, Maradona also has a substitute attacker with fierce speed and delicate touch. The last two Argentine goals that put victory beyond reach for the Koreans came within the first five minutes of Aguero coming off the bench.
The Argentine defense still looks vulnerable, with Martin Demichelis especially unconvincing against the Koreans. He gifted them their goal. But he still got one of the biggest hugs of all from Maradona.
Clearly, Maradona`s love alone won`t win the World Cup for Argentina. But it certainly helps.