Maradona worried about 'fair-play'
Argentina coach Diego Maradona. (AP)
Pretoria - Argentina coach Diego Maradona on Friday admitted he is concerned about the physical threat Nigeria will pose in their Group B World Cup opener in Johannesburg on Saturday.
The 49-year-old, who lifted the World Cup as Argentina captain in 1986, having infamously scored a goal with his hand against England in the quarter-finals, said he hoped the referees would ensure the Africans play fair.
"We know how Nigeria play and they know how we play. We don't expect to play a rough and tough team, although we're ready to play any team," said Maradona, whose international career ended in disgrace when he failed a drugs test at the 1994 World Cup finals when Nigeria were also in their group.
"But the only thing I can say right now is those looking for fair-play should not stand alone.
"Let's really look for fair-play and referees should understand what fair-play is.
"When fair-play started in 1990 (four years after Maradona's 'Hand of God') I got a kick from a Cameroon player (in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup, that the Africans won 1-0) who nearly kicked my head off.
"(Claudio) Caniggia got a yellow card for a small kick and I nearly got kicked in the head.
"We've been through that but we want good football, we want fair-play, we want to enjoy the match.
"If you don't want to play clean football, go into the stands. People want to see football and we want people to watch football peacefully without violence."
Although he may be worried about Nigeria's physical presence, he did have a word of warning for the Super Eagles' Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, who only took over on a five-month deal in February.
"I don't think it's a good thing to change a coach on such short notice but perhaps he can introduce some good elements, such as set-pieces," said Maradona.
"But it all depends on the players and he'll have to plan his matches according to the players he has.
"But in football you need continuity and I wish him all the best, but he has very little time to work on many things he should be doing as a coach."
The controversial Maradona - who had people calling for his head as Argentina struggled to qualify and his selection policy became more and more erratic - admitted that his players are nervous ahead of their World Cup opener.
"We have many players who are tense, there's a particular tension that builds up when you come to the World Cup and they know perfectly well that many (other) players could have qualified (instead of them) for this competition," he said before adding that he himself is calm.
"I was much more nervous when I was a player. I was telling (captain Javier) Mascherano yesterday (Thursday) that I had sweaty palms.
"I live just as intensely today but I'm not as nervous because I firmly believe in these 23 players I have. I'm going to live or die with these 23.
"I know what people back home are expecting and feeling and I just love to see them that way. Tomorrow I believe we'll start building a dream.
"Many of us cherish this dream and it's not come true for quite some time."
Argentina will begin as favourites against Nigeria but they haven't forgotten what happened in their opening match in Italy in 1990 when a Francois Omam-Biyik goal gave Cameroon a shock victory.
And Maradona believes that even if they were to suffer a similar fate this time, his team would be able to recover.
"It's always the same thing, you always have surprises in the first matches but when the tournament is narrowed down I guess we'll always have the same teams basically."
However, he did warn perennial rivals Brazil that they face the biggest dangers.
"I've liked two teams so far in the warm-ups: Ivory Coast for instance and Portugal," he said of Brazil's group G rivals.
"They are willing to put up a fight and will do so against Brazil who will have a hard time I believe, we'll see how they cope with that."