Manic Maradona no World Cup sideshow

JOHANNESBURG, June 12 (Reuters) - A veritable goldmine of football talent was on display at Ellis Park on Saturday but throughout Argentina's defeat of Nigeria a roly-poly, bearded bundle of arm-waving anxiety threatened to steal the show.

If Argentina's lineup of superstars had been in any doubt, they will not be now - on the World Cup stage nothing grabs the cameras quite like Diego Maradona.

Captain and goalscorer Gabriel Heinze, Juan Sebastian Veron and even world player of the year Lionel Messi were all reduced to supporting roles as Maradona ranted and raved on the sidelines, orchestrating his players like a man possessed.

"I had many emotions. I threw kisses to my daughters and I spent some time with my grandson before the game," coach Maradona bubbled afterwards.

"Today being the (national) team's coach was a great feeling, very beautiful. I want to thank all the people who supported me and who didn't forget that I once too scored a goal in the Argentine jersey."

Even before kick-off, the 49-year-old former maestro, now sporting a beard flecked with grey, grabbed all the attention by hugging the Nigerian players in a pre-match stroll on the pitch at the Johannesburg stadium.

During the pre-match stroll, he stepped over advertising hoardings to blow kisses to his daughter and grandson, whose father is Argentine forward Sergio Aguero.

Maradona reappeared at the start of the game dapper in a grey suit and tie, but his sober attire was never going to cramp his style or cloak a clearly visible state of nervous tension.


From kick-off, he alternated between dancing around with excitement and prowling the touchline like a big cat at the zoo.

When Heinze scored Argentina's first and only goal in the game's sixth minute, he skipped several metres on to the pitch, blazer flapping, and pumped his fists like an overgrown schoolboy.

Despite his antics during the game, he was all calmness and philosopher during the post-match news conference.

"There are a lot of emotions, a lot," he said. "Being in the stadium, being the coach of the national team ... it's a beautiful feeling.

"We won a great game and we are on our way. I hope our boys are able to use all that affection from the Argentine people and those who were in the stadium today to keep playing better.

"When you win a game and start to consolidate you get a good taste for victory. It happened to us (Argentine team) in 1986 (when they won) and 1990 (runners-up). They will feel the need to win every day as each game passes."

Maradona returns to the World Cup stage as Argentine coach 16 years after his last cap - also against Nigeria - in the United States. He was sent home soon afterward for failing a doping test.

"It's all new this time. You have to make decisions very quickly. This is the World Cup and everything happens to you like it's Formula One," he said.

During his playing career, Maradona stole the limelight at the 1986 World Cup with his infamous Hand of God goal against England and eight years later in 1994 for his stunning exit after testing positive for ephedrine - something he has blamed on an energy drink.

This time he was high on World Cup fever alone.