He walked into the press conference with chin and nose in the air, but the dejection shrouding Diego Armando Maradona was palpable.
After overseeing the routing of his beloved Argentina by four German goals to nil in the quarterfinals of the World Cup at Cape Town stadium on Saturday night, the stocky body which had sustained butcher-like cleaves from defenders and an astonishing amount of self-inflicted injuries — including near death-by-pizzas-and-cocaine — was coursing with emotion.
The maestro of South American football compared the loss to the day when, as a 21-year-old, he was sent off against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup finals: “I lived through this in 1982 but then I was just a boy … I will be 50 on October 3 … this is the toughest day of my life.
Even the pain of the day he hung up his boots couldn’t compare to this, said Maradona: “The day I stopped playing football is similar to this, but this sadness is really tough because the idea, the wish to go beyond today and be in the top four in the world — we didn’t achieve this,” he said.
But to reduce this loss to a mere stop in the tournament progression of a proud footballing nation, would be a gross understatement.
Maradona, and many of the Argentine players — from Carlos Tevez to captain Javier Mascherano — looked as if they had just raped and murdered their mothers, as if the dishonour of July 3 left no room to countenance continuing breathing.
Maradon hinted at the possibility of resigning early when he said: “I may leave tomorrow, but I want these boys to go on showing what they are and showcasing the real Argentina.”
When asked to clarify this later, he said: “I haven’t thought about it. I haven’t thought about it and I must check with my family and players.”
If, in the pre-match hype, the eyes of the world were trained on the two midget maestro: Maradona and his creative dauphin, Lionel Messi, the course of this quarterfinal ensured that this talented, organised and fearlessly youthful German team became the new focus.
Goals from defender Arne Friederich, Thomas Mueller and a brace from Miroslav Klose sealed this match, but it was a combination of thorough tactical preparation and boundless energy that was behind these goals.
While both Maradona and Mascherano blamed the early goal — Mueller ghosted in front of the Argentine defence in the third minute to finish off a free-kick played into the box by Bastian Schweinsteiger in the third minute — for putting them on the back foot and no space to play their natural game, it was very obvious that they had done their homework too.
German captain Philipp Lahm said: “We knew that Argentina play with five attackers and five defenders, and we felt that if we could get past that barrier, we would win.”
It was a tactical consideration that coach Joachim Loew also reiterated: “We saw from very early on that Argentina benefit from a very strong attack, they have four or five very strong attackers, but they don’t support their defence, so I told my team: ‘You are younger, faster and with more endurance … If we pressure the Argentine defence then we will destroy them’.”
This was, perhaps, an indictment of Maradona: that the shortcomings of his team could be so easily exploited.
On bottling up Messi, who, despite the odd audacious run and turning of defenders, had a quiet game, Loew said the plan had been stick on him high up on the pitch and with the “second or third defender” getting in the decisive tackle after space around Messi had been closed down.
It worked to perfection with Messi receiving the ball only to find the likes of Lucas Podolski harrying him before support arrived — usually very quickly.
This German team, is ‘swift” as Loew pointed out, fluid in both attack and defence and play like a phalanx of warriors. In Podolski, Mueller — who will miss the semifinals through suspension after picking up a yellow card during the match — the tireless Sami Khedira, indefatigable Schweinsteger and creative dynamo Mesut Oezil, they have what is emerging as the best midfield in world football.
In a few days time, the rest of us will know if they have the best team in world football.