Maradona: critics must grovel
Pretoria - Argentina coach Diego Maradona is ready for his critics to stand up and hang their heads in shame.
Diego Maradona (File)
Maradona was derided by his critics in Argentina before the World Cup as a naive tactician and attention-grabber who would squander the nation's best chance of winning the title in years.
Three wins later and the tone's changed. Argentina, many now believe, could go on to win the tournament in South Africa.
But Maradona was having none of it Saturday.
"Many journalists should apologize to the players," Maradona said. "I'm not suggesting you drop your trousers, but it would be honest and great so we all get along better."
With Lionel Messi flanked by Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain, the Argentines are one of the favourites to win the competition. It's quite a turnaround for a squad that only just squeezed through qualifying, when Maradona used more than 100 players.
With Messi in top form, Argentina at times threatened to crush Nigeria in the opening match but missed a string of chances in the 1-0 win. Higuain then scored a hat trick as South Korea were beaten 4-1 - a result that allowed Maradona the luxury of bringing in seven new faces for the 2-0 win over Greece.
"I am turning 50 and I am not bitter," Maradona said. "But I get annoyed when people don't respect my players.
"It isn't easy going from being nobodies back home to winning three matches at a World Cup. At the training camp, we had to swallow what you all said about us being a disaster - the worst Argentine team you'd ever seen," Maradona said. "All of a sudden we're an excellent team ... the most handsome people in the 'barrio!"'
Next up for Argentina is Mexico on Sunday, with a place in the quarterfinals at stake.
The two nations met at the same stage of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. A long-distance strike by Maxi Rodriguez sent the Argentines through in extra time.
The winner of Sunday's match will play either England or Germany, and Maradona, at least publicly, isn't buying into the sudden status of Argentina being potential champions.
"I still think the other teams are the favourites, but we're fighting for it," he said. "My players have understood the message and know perfectly what's needed.
"When you win, you don't get carried away. But if you go step by step, with confidence, you can go far."
Maradona may lack official coaching certificates and has never tasted success during short stints as a club manager. But one thing he does have in abundance is experience of World Cups - and self-belief.
"I certainly have an advantage over some because I can pass on so much from the World Cups I played in," he said, recalling the four tournaments he played in from 1982 to 1994.
In 1986, he led the country to the World Cup title with one of the most stunning individual performances in the history of the competition. Four years later, when the Argentines reached the final, "we came back to life when everybody had left us for dead."
"I was left out in 1978. I've experienced everything," Maradona said. "And now I am able to pass this on with all my soul and all my heart to my players."