ARG 4 KOR 1: Maradona v Pele, part 94

FRANZ Beckenbauer slagging off England’s playing style was nothing. The real international football dispute at this World Cup is the row between Pele and Diego Maradona, now entering his 100th year.

I can’t remember exactly how it started. Perhaps Maradona borrowed Pele’s lawn mower and refused to return it. Or maybe Pele kept a particularly noisy dog that got on Maradona’s nerves. Who knows?

But the two greatest footballers the world has ever seen continue to make the kind of verbal digs at each other that would embarrass a pair of seven-year-olds. And it’s quite funny.

The latest spat between The Odd Couple was sparked by Pele’s claim that Maradona had only taken the Argentina job for the money. Or maybe it was sparked by Maradona accusing Pele of not supporting South Africa’s bid to host the World Cup.

For some reason, all I can hear is two petulant children yelling “He started it, miss” while being marched to the headmaster’s office.

Anyway, Pele has spoken, and so Diego must respond. And has. Maradona launched into the latest in his series of memorable press conference rants yesterday by claiming that Pele should “get back to the museum”, perhaps confusing him with Ben Stiller (who should not, under any circumstances, go back to the museum).

I did enjoy Daily Telegraph chief sports correspondent Ian Chadband’s suggestion that the only way to sort out the never-ending feud was to get Harry Hill in to referee a TV Burp-style ‘FIIIIIIIIIIGGGGHT!’ (I suspect Harry will have to make do with knitted replicas of the two legends, though. Knitted Maradona would win, in my view.)

If Maradona’s aim is to take the pressure off his players by focusing it on himself, it’s working. But it’s hard to tell with him where madness ends and method begins. Is he going to play Diego Milito at any point during this tournament? Is he even aware of his existence?

It doesn’t seem to matter. Argentina were brilliant against South Korea in Johannesburg this afternoon, particularly in the second half. Gonzalo Higuain did what no player managed at the last World Cup finals, and scored a hat-trick.

South Korea scored the other two goals – Park Chu-young into the wrong net to give Argentina a 1-0 lead, Bolton’s Lee Chung-yong into the right one to bring it back to 2-1 at half-time. But they looked overawed by their opponents for long spells. There must be a niggling fear that their 2010 World Cup campaign will go the same way as 2006 – a winning start followed by two defeats and group stage elimination.

That may come as a disappointment to John Helm, who is covering this tournament for a company called Host Broadcast Services, hired by FIFA to film the games and provide English language commentary for TV stations around the world. As Yeom Ki-hun challenged Lionel Messi in the first half, Helm remarked: “Yeom tackles you-know-who. That’s not a Korean player, by the way.”

(In the corny pun stakes, it’s not quite up there with Barry Davies’ joke during a France match at Euro 2004, when Mark Lawrenson had finished making some tactical point or other just as Olivier Dacourt collected the ball. “Dacourt,” Davies said. Then quickly added: “That’s the player in possession, not an indication that I’m agreeing with you, Mark.”)

Not a good day for South Korea, but one which signalled that the World Cup is finally coming to life. Thank goodness.

Argentina’s win was the first of three entertaining matches today, followed up by Greece’s dramatic victory over Nigeria and Mexico pushing France towards the exit door (a result celebrated as much in Dublin as in Mexico City, I suspect).

With all that going on, Maradona v Pele can now probably be relegated to the background – which it might not have been a few days ago.

“I don’t care about all this, Mike,” I hear you cry. “This are people from faraway exotic lands, who I cannot possibly identify with. I just want to know what the mood in the England camp is.” Oh, very well.


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