Desperate Argentina, one of global football’s iconic teams, faces the unthinkable national/psychological trauma of missing the World Cup. Despite a squad packed with Dom Perignon talent from the top leagues of Europe, and despite (or, depending on one’s point of view, because of) the presence of none other than Diego Maradona in the manager’s chair, the Albiceleste are staggering through their qualification campaign. With just two matchdays remaining, they host humble Peru in Buenos Aires.
Maradona—still rocking the Argentine party mullet and the sweet earring, even if he has shed body weight equivalent to Lionel Messi since pulling out of his lifestyle doom spiral of a few years ago—reacts to imminent crisis as only he can. He goes all mad genius, dropping several players who, on their own, would be the making of many a fantasy team. He calls up Gonzalo Higuain, a French-born player without a single full international cap for his ancestral homeland. Global heads shake and much chin-scratching occurs over the laptop monitors of soccer nerds the world over.
The first half—whatever. In the second half, Argentina puts together an all-too-rare example of the strolling, majestic, relaxed-but-lethal football that is their trademark, and a centimeter-perfect pass slices the Peru backline to find a striker who cooly one-times it into the net. Gonzalo Higuain. Who else?
Meanwhile, Maradona had gone to his bench at half-time. For whom? Not for Carlos Tevez or anyone else known to the casual English Premier League or La Liga fan. Maradona orders to the field one Martin Palermo, a lumbering vision from a different era of footballing civilization: a 35-year-old man who plies his trade not in Europe, but on behalf of echt-old school Buenos Aires club Boca Juniors; a man who had an unsuccessful run in Spain that started when Bill Clinton was president of the United States; a man who had not played for Argentina in ten years. Yes, Palermo still scores goals like this, but in an era thoroughly dominated by European clubs and a form of competition that generally rewards youth over experience, Maradona’s team selection was starting to look more magical-realist than eccentric.
Speaking of magical realism, then a Biblical monsoon rolls in. Like, a tidal wall of water that renders the field virtually invisible to the watching electronic eye. Players emerge from the gray miasma and then vanish back into its depths. On the sideline, the track-suited Maradona quickly begins to gleam and shimmer like a gigantic seal. Somewhere in this damp atmospheric cotton ball, with 15 seconds left before stoppage time, Peru heads home an equalizer kept on side by a slumbering Argentina defender who is nowhere near the play but who, in fairness, is probably just trying to figure out where the hell he is, period.
This goal constitutes utter disaster for Argentina. Among other things, it means Maradona’s managerial career probably has about five minutes left to run. Say what you will about the man, but you don’t see Pele out there trying to steer a team to the World Cup, and his presence in South Africa would guarantee an epic sideshow next summer. Maradona stands stricken.
And then, as Argentina practically recruits ballboys to stream into Peru’s penalty area, the rock pings crazily around. Someone gets a boot to it and wings an improbable pass through half the population of Lima, and the ball finds the reflexively extended foot of…
Well, yeah. Martin Palermo.