Calmer Maradona winning over critics

PRETORIA - To suggest late last year that Argentina coach Diego Maradona, a man known for his mood swings, was capable of forging a World Cup-winning team would have been laughable to his fiercest critics.

His side scraped into the South Africa finals and Maradona, who had no coaching experience to speak of when appointed to the job a year earlier, was criticised for his selection policy and lack of tactical vision from the touchline.

What is emerging in snippets at Argentina's heavily guarded University of Pretoria base, however, is a team that is less defensive than in the friendly win against Germany in March with great scoring potential.

"Now we're seeing the logic of what we all imagined given the players he has," said Ruben Capria, a former player with Racing Club and Newell's Old Boys and now media pundit.

The change, according to Capria and other close observers of the Argentina team, comes from a realisation that Maradona is not inflexible and is intelligent enough to know how to achieve what he wants with the players he has.

"He changed the way he expresses himself in the media, (he is) calmer, more thoughtful, more cautious," Capria, an attacking midfielder who was known as El Mago (The Magician), told Reuters.

Madrid-based Argentine football writer Sergio Levinsky dated the change in Maradona and his trump card Lionel Messi to a two-hour conversation the pair had in Madrid in April.

"After that chat he had with Messi in Madrid, things changed. He asked Messi which formation would suit him best, Messi told him and he is working on it," Levinsky told Reuters.

Messi was often criticised for failing to reproduce his brilliant Barcelona form for Argentina in the South American qualifiers.

The chat also appeared to have a great psychological impact on Messi, who scored successive hat-tricks in La Liga and four goals against Arsenal in the Champions League following that meeting.

LEARNING CURVE

Capria said Maradona had adopted a serene approach. The greying beard Maradona grew after his pet dog bit him on the lip is still there and adds to an image of calm the coach sought within the team's camp.

"I think serenity is a good message...He's an affectionate guy, close to the players," added Capria, who has been in Pretoria since the squad arrived on May 29.

Levinsky suggested Maradona had learnt a lot in the job as he went along. "He's not inflexible, he is prepared to listen to people and discuss things," he said of a man who has always been seen as surrounding himself with yes-men.

The key factor for Maradona was to get the most out of a squad that Messi described as the best in the world last week.

When Argentina face Nigeria in their opening Group B match in Johannesburg on Saturday they could do so with three players who took part in the Champions League final and five of the finest goalscorers from Europe's major leagues.

Such is the players' form that Maradona has taken a man out of defence in order to make room up front for Carlos Tevez, playing alongside Gonzalo Higuain, with Messi just behind in what is now seen as Argentina's most likely starting line-up.

"The tactical drawing is the least important thing. To use a phrase of (Alfio) Basile, 'I line my team up well, but then they move'," said Capria with a grin, quoting Maradona's predecessor in the job about how a coach's influence from the touchline is limited.

However, with images still fresh of Maradona perplexed on the touchline when things were going badly during the qualifiers, Verbitsky warned: "What we don't know is how Maradona will react to problems on the field during the match."

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