Argentina’s “perfect player” led his team to a perfect start to its World Cup yesterday.
Lionel Messi guided Argentina to a 2-0 victory over Greece in Polokwane, South Africa, last night, 24 years after his coach’s “Hand of God” goal helped the South Americans to their second title. Yesterday’s win allowed manager Diego Maradona’s side to progress to last 16 of the tournament after three wins in as many games.
Argentina have “the perfect player” in Messi, said Maradona, now coach of the team. “He’s small, he’s fast, he’s skilful and he can run through the legs of opposition players.”
Messi last night became Argentina’s youngest-ever captain, two days before his 23rd birthday. He was voted man-of-the match after shrugging off tough tackles from Greece to play a decisive role in his side’s win.
“They were pushing him the whole game,” Maradona told reporters at a news conference. “Every time Messi got the ball they fouled him, they tackled him hard or they brought him down. But Messi can still really play.”
While the Barcelona forward didn’t get score, he crashed the ball against the Greek post after beating goalkeeper Alexandros Tzorvas. He was involved in both his team’s goals, scored by defender Martin Demichelis and forward Martin Palermo.
“I’m not worried about not scoring,” Messi said. “Of course I’d like to, but it’s not important, especially when I had a man clinging to me for 90 minutes.”
Argentina’s victory means they finish at the top of Group B with nine points, ahead of South Korea, which secured the second qualifying spot with four points after a 2-2 draw with group rivals Nigeria.
“Argentina were clearly superior,” Greece’s coach Otto Rehhagel told reporters. “They were the better team, and this was a deserved win for Argentina.”
Argentina are ranked seventh in the world, six places above Greece and ten places above their next opponents, Mexico, who they play on June 27.
“We’re now showing what we’re able to do,” said Maradona, who was voted the greatest player ever in a poll of supporters by soccer’s governing body FIFA.. “My players are making my people and my country happy.” Argentina, which won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986, finished fourth in qualifying for the tournament, after Brazil, Chile and Paraguay.
Messi has been compared with Maradona, who in 1986 punched the ball into the net as Argentina beat England 2-1 in the quarterfinals on the way to winning the World Cup. Maradona later referred to the “Hand of God” scoring the goal.
The coach said the team will continue to try to entertain while winning.
“We have all the reasons to be relaxed now,” Maradona said. “The past errors don’t really count anymore.”
While Argentina will respect Mexico, “we will play the best we can, as we did now,” Maradona said. “Above all I want the Mexicans to respect my players because I can tell the Argentine people we have a great team.”