Optimism, backsides, Diego & Viv

It’s always good to be optimistic at the outset of another World Cup campaign, and former England defender Viv Anderson is certainly optimistic. Four days before the start of the tournament he could be found trying to entice travelling football fans to buy signed copies of his new autobiography outside a bookshop at Heathrow’s Terminal 3.

Unfortunately for him, a great many of the Johannesburg-bound fans at the airport seem to be either American soccer boys or flag-waving Mexicans, but it doesn’t dent his faith in Capello and the England squad. “I’m confident we’ll reach the semis at least,” he smiles as he signs. “We’ve got a good manager and a great team, and Rooney scored in today’s training game, which helps because he hasn’t scored for six games.”

When it comes to the World Cup, we have to bow to Anderson’s greater judgement. He certainly knows what he’s talking about. Having travelled to Spain in 1982 and to Mexico in 1986, he was only the second outfield player, after George Eastham in the Sixties, to have been in two England World Cup squads without ever getting onto the pitch. So if anyone can give us a little bit of insight into not winning the World Cup, then it’s Viv Anderson.

Also a veteran of the 1982 and 1986 World Cups – but with a little more pitch-time – Diego Maradona has a keener understanding of what it takes to lift that famous trophy, and he has a ton of optimism too, but as an international coach who struggled to inspire his team through World Cup qualification, he's still to convince that this great of the world game has got what it takes to get his message over to a hugely talented squad.

On the training pitch of the Absa Tuks Stadium in a suburb of Pretoria, Maradona is not so much coaching his team to glory as refereeing an informal kickabout. He ambles aimlessly around the pitch with a whistle in his mouth, joking with them, cajoling them, but most of the time he just seems to be ignored by them as they carry on with their game around him.

"Get out of here!"

He’s slow, jogs with a slight limp, and hardly looks the football god of old, but there are many back in his home country prepared to forgive him almost anything – even losing the World Cup if it comes to it.

“Most of the Argentinian people don’t like Maradona as a coach,” admits 29-year-old Nicolas Gonzalez, from Buenos Aires, as he waits patiently outside the training ground for a glimpse of his heroes. “But we loved him as a player, so we are prepared to forgive him and during the World Cup we are going to support him no matter what. I might have different opinions to him about the team, but during the World Cup he is God.”

His friend, 27-year-old Martin Urrere from Rosario, agrees. “If Maradona doesn’t win the World Cup with this team then some people will continue to support him and some people will shout at him like he is the devil. He’s not a good manager, but I'm one of those that will support him no matter what.”

Back on the pitch the training session has ended well for Messi and Tevez and their team-mates in the orange bibs. They have roundly defeated the remainder of the squad, and those wearing the blue training tops must now pay a forfeit. Maradona joins the losers on the goalline and together they turn away and provocatively offer up their backsides as a target to the victors, who fire in a barrage of powerfully hit shots from distance.

Apparently it’s a commonplace training ground ritual in Argentina, but you couldn’t really imagine Fabio Capello or Marcello Lippi doing it in the build-up to their World Cup opening games. Or does Maradona really know something about motivation that the world’s leading coaches have yet to grasp?

“Let’s put it this way, I don’t think any other coaches would be coming here to learn from Maradona,” says one watching Argentine journalist. “What he does is not from the coaching manual, but he has broad shoulders and he wants to fire up the heart of the team.”

Whether Maradona’s unusual mix of motivational techniques and coaching tomfoolery will be enough to win the World Cup for Argentina remains to be seen. We'll have to ask Viv Anderson next time, but for the time being it seems that the Argentina players are as forgiving as the fans.

“The legend of Maradona will always be there,” says Roma defender Nicolas Burdisso after training, “and he will still be our legend after he finishes being our coach.”

The question is, how soon will that be?

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