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Saturday, June 26, 2010
Maradona seeks vindication for team

Associated Press

PRETORIA, South Africa -- Diego Maradona says it's time for the critics to stand up and hang their heads in shame.

Before the World Cup even began, he'd been branded a liability back home -- a legend on the playing field, of course, but a naive tactician and attention-grabber who would squander the nation's best chance of winning the title in years.

Three wins later in South Africa and the tone's changed. Argentina, many now believe, could win the tournament.

Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona, a legend as a player, is trying to pass his Cup experience on to his team.

But Maradona was having none of it Saturday.

"Many journalists should apologize to the players," he said, oozing confidence and never losing his cool. "I'm not suggesting you drop your trousers, but it would be honest and great so we all get along better."

With the outstanding Lionel Messi flanked by Carlos Tevez and leading scorer Gonzalo Higuain, the Argentines now are seen as one of the favorites to win it all.

It's quite a turnaround for a squad that squeezed into the competition during qualifiers in which Maradona used more than 100 players.

With Messi in inspired form, Argentina at times threatened to rout Nigeria in the opening match, but missed a string of chances in the 1-0 win. Higuain then scored a hat trick as South Korea was dispatched 4-1 -- a result that allowed Maradona the luxury of bringing in seven new faces for a 2-0 win over Greece.

"I am turning 50 and I am not bitter," he said. "But I get annoyed when people don't respect my players.

"It isn't easy going from being nobodies back home to winning three matches at a World Cup. At the training camp, we had to swallow what you all said about us being a disaster -- the worst Argentine team you'd ever seen.

"All of a sudden we're an excellent team ... the most handsome people in the 'barrio!' " he said. "But even that's not true. We have to keep fighting . . . "

Maradona adds he won't allow anyone to get carried away with the success in South Africa.

Next up is Mexico on Sunday, with a place in the quarterfinals at stake.

The two nations met at exactly the same stage of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, a long-distance strike by Maxi Rodriguez sending the Argentines through to the last eight in extra time.

The winner of Sunday's match will play either England or Germany.

Maradona, at least publicly, isn't buying into the sudden status of Argentina being potential winners here.

"I still think the other teams are the favorites, but we're fighting for it," he said. "My players have understood the message and know perfectly what's needed.

"When you win, you don't get carried away. But if you go step by step, with confidence, you can go far."

Maradona may lack official coaching licenses and has never tasted success during short stints as a club manager. But one thing he does have in abundance is experience at World Cups -- and self-belief.

"I certainly have an advantage over some because I can pass on so much from the World Cups I played in," he said, recalling the four tournaments he played in from 1982 onward.

In 1986, he led the country to the World Cup title with one of the most stunning individual performances in the history of the competition.

Four years later, when the Argentines finished runners-up, "we came back to life when everybody had left us for dead," he said Saturday.

"I was left out in 1978. I've experienced everything," he recalled. "And now I am able to pass this on with all my soul and all my heart to my players."