PRETORIA (Reuters) - Nobody in Argentina’s World Cup camp, not even Lionel Messi, takes a better free kick than Diego Maradona.
When he organizes a hit-the-crossbar competition, it only lasts a few seconds because he bounces the ball off the target first time then walks away laughing.
Maradona is a hands on coach, almost inside his players’ minds, encouraging and cajoling during training.
He has thrived at the World Cup, first as player now as coach, his past of drug abuse and near death apparently well behind him.
The 49-year-old was the main man putting reserve goalkeepers Mariano Andujar and Diego Pozo through intense practice at free kicks while the players involved in Thursday’s 4-1 win over South Korea in their second Group B match rested.
A wide-eyed press corps watched as Maradona, who has a limp in his left leg, delivered sweetly weighted left-footed shots to either top corner.
Even an ordinary save was met with loud praise from the 1986 World Cup-winning captain.
Maradona talks of his 23 “wild cats” fighting to get on the pitch at the World Cup. Watching training, it is obvious they are not empty words. He keeps all 23, even third keeper Pozo, on their toes.
The constant “good, well done, more” that brought criticism during the qualifiers because it seemed that was all he was good at, is a small part of his powers of motivation.
However much an Argentina player might lift his game in the light blue and white stripes, his confidence levels appear to peak when he is being encouraged and advised by Maradona.
Daniel Arcucci, co-writer of Maradona’s autobiography “Yo, el Diego” (I, Diego), aptly headlined a recent article in La Nacion: “In his own way, Maradona is playing.”
In the post-match news conference at Soccer City after Argentina topped the group with six points, Maradona said: “My show of affection toward my players is my way of thanking them for the job done.
“We’ve made a sensational group... if one has to say something, they say it. We’re constantly having meetings.
“We talk things through and reach agreements. We believe that to come to a consensus is better than to punish, than a fine. Talking we resolve matters.”
Captain Javier Mascherano told reporters on Friday: “Diego comes to embrace us but just as he does so in front of the cameras he’s the same when there are no cameras and that’s what’s important.”
An Argentina set-up full of internal squabbles may have been a correct interpretation of the state of affairs during the qualifiers when Maradona’s team flirted with failure.
Harmony now appears to be carrying Argentina on a wave of success and the young — and spoilt according to his mother Celia — Messi is thriving.
Editing by Ken Ferris