There were several heart-stopping moments

Maradona exults following Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Uruguay.-AP

The former world champion Argentina wobbling through to the finals in South Africa was one of the most interesting aspects of World Cup 2010 qualifiers. By S. R. Suryanarayan.

World Cup 2010 in South Africa promises a lot if the action in the qualification phase is anything to go by. As the qualifiers were identified, joyous scenes were witnessed in various continents. No, we are not speaking of the Germans or the Englishmen, for they proved their mettle with some scintillating displays. We aren’t speaking of the reigning champion Italy or the champion of champions Brazil either. But the drama was high for Argentina even as new heroes popp ed up and a few fresh contestants emerged for the biggest prize of all in football.

A few vignettes will remain fresh in one’s memory, like Germany handing Russia its first-ever home defeat in the qualifying phase and thereby maintaining its record of never failing to qualify for a major tournament. And in far away Montevideo, in South America, Diego Maradona’s men won in Uruguay for the first time in 33 years to book their ticket for World Cup 2010. That it all boiled down to that climactic finish for Argentina formed the essence of this year’s qualifying rounds.

For Argentina the late drama in adversity came, not once, but twice in the space of four days, having had to beat Peru and Uruguay. Elsewhere Serbia, Slovakia, Chile, Honduras and Côte d’Ivoire made it to the next summer’s global showdown, which is all set for a never-before-seen sparkle.

At the height of his career, football genius Diego Maradona had the last say in all arguments on the field. With the ball at his feet woe betide any opposition as he showed in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. And England would vouch for it. Two decades later, and after going through several ups and downs in his life stemming from his inability to handle his demi-God status in the football world, Maradona returned as the coach of his national team and ironically it was Argentina which had to go through some anxious and even stunning moments en route to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.

Argentina did not qualify for the 1970 World Cup, but from 1974 it has not missed being a part of the World Cup field. In fact, no World Cup seemed complete without the presence of this irresistible La Albiceleste in the line-up. For a few days, as the qualifying phase in South America headed for the climactic stages, it seemed as if Argentina would fail to qualify outright and would need to take the route of play-offs. With Brazil, Paraguay and Chile having qualified, the toss up for the fourth spot was between Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador.

Critics had a field day imputing reasons for Argentina’s poor showing — four defeats in five outings — and even hinting that the standoff between Maradona and manager Carlos Bilardo was affecting the team’s morale.

But then Maradona had his own way. Like when he was a player, when instincts ruled his every move. He showed that he had the men for the job. If it was Martin Palermo, 34, the man who remained in international wilderness for a decade, who came to Argentina’s rescue as a substitute against Peru, then it was substitute Mario Bolatti who turned an instant hero against Uruguay with the winner. The 1-0 win against Uruguay ensured Argentina’s passage to South Africa.

In one stroke Maradona then hit back at his critics. “For those who didn’t believe in this national team,” he said, “for those who treated me like garbage, I say we are in the World Cup with all the honours, beating a team like Uruguay.

“I’d like to thank, from the bottom of my heart, all the Argentina fans who crossed the pond (the River Plate) and came to support the national team,” said a defiant Maradona at the post-match press conference. “I’d also like to thank my family and the people of Argentina and nobody else. We’ve reached the World Cup in style, taking on and beating a great Uruguay side and doing it like real men. This goes out to the people who believed, not to the disbelievers who treated me like rubbish.”

Maradona’s woes started with the 6-1 away loss to Bolivia in La Paz. It was Argentina’s worst ever defeat in six decades. Having taken over the team only in 2008 — as a surprise successor to Alfio Basile, who quit after Argentina’s loss to Chile — Maradona began well with his team posting wins in friendly matches against Scotland and France. And in his first competitive match as the coach, Maradona’s men hammered Venezuela 4-0. The joy, however, receded following the humiliation in La Paz. But all was not lost for Argentina at that stage as it was only two points behind the second-placed Brazil. But defeats against Ecuador, Brazil and Paraguay heightened the drama. The South American giant had to ensure ‘no losses’ in its last two outings — against Peru (at home) and Uruguay (away). How the 1986 world champion did it when the chips were down is another stirring football fable.

Ten years ago, when the rangy Palermo was at his peak, he had earned notoriety for missing as many as three penalties in a match against Colombia in the 1999 Copa America in Paraguay. This time he hit the headlines for the right reason. Bolatti, on the other hand, will never forget his international debut against Uruguay. Both Palermo and Bolatti have proved to be Maradona’s trump cards.

Meanwhile, several of the remaining qualifying spots have also been resolved. With Ecuador having lost to Chile, Uruguay will go into a play-off against Costa Rica to decide the fifth qualifier from South America. Leading 2-0 against the United States, Costa Rica was set to qualify automatically but an injury-time equaliser enabled Honduras to overtake it. In Europe, Switzerland went through after holding Israel to a draw, while Slovakia qualified for its first ever World Cup with a brave 1-0 win against Poland. The other teams from Europe are Denmark, England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Spain. Four more teams will go through via the play-offs in November which involves the best eight group runner-up teams — Portugal, France, Russia, Republic of Ireland, Ukraine, Slovenia, Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina.]

The four qualifiers from Asia, identified in June itself, are Australia, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea. And there could be one more if Bahrain manages to win its inter-continental play-off against New Zealand (Oceania winner).

From Africa, which has five berths, South Africa, as the host, has qualified automatically, while Ivory Coast and Ghana are the other teams that have booked their places in World Cup 2010. The USA, Mexico and Honduras have taken the three slots from North, Central America and the Caribbean zone.