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Argentina coach Diego Maradona did the hard part by leading his country to a World Cup berth. ((JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images))

Diego Maradona was one of the greatest players ever to step onto a soccer field.

But while he was beloved by millions of fans during his playing career, the Argentine ace was also a favourite target of the media and always walked around with a big bull's-eye painted on his back, thanks in large part to his self-indulgent lifestyle and public acts of arrogance.

Not much has changed since El Diego retired from the game he learned to play while growing up in Villa Fiorito, a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Although the former Boca Juniors star has kicked his drug problem, he still has an air of conceit and the press continues to hound him, especially since he took over as manager of Argentina's national team in November 2008.

Maradona was handed the coaching reins following the resignation of Alfio Basile and, though Argentina improved under his tutelage, it didn't disguise the fact that the team laboured through a tumultuous qualifying campaign.

During Maradona's tenure, La Albicelestes suffered a historic and humiliating 6-1 humbling at the hands of lowly Bolivia in La Paz. A harder-than-it-looked win over Colombia was followed by three consecutive losses (to Ecuador, Brazil and Paraguay) before Maradona's men finally secured a World Cup berth on the final day of the South American qualifiers.

Critics galore

Not surprisingly, the press quickly unsheathed their daggers after Argentina stumbled across the finish line, calling for Maradona's removal. But if the critics expect Argentina football federation president Julio Grondona to fire Maradona before the 2010 World Cup, they are in for some bitter disappointment if history is any indication.

"Grondona has been in charge of Argentine football for over three decades without ever [firing] a national team coach. They've all either resigned or not been renewed at the end of their contracts," Tim Vickery, a Rio-based reporter and expert on South American soccer, told CBCSports.ca.

Nor does Maradona merit being terminated, argues Vickery: "Given the fact that he has been successful, he's achieved qualification, I'm not sure what the basis would be for removing him. … It doesn't make sense.

"I think we clearly saw at the end of the qualifiers that the players were still playing for him. Yes, he made mistakes, but now he has the time to sit down and work it out and plan things out before going to South Africa."

Vickery also said Argentina's poor form in the qualifiers has been blown out of proportion and been unfairly blamed on Maradona, in large part due to his unsavoury reputation.

"The tabloid temptation is there - because this is Diego Maradona's Argentina - [to say] the team was sailing along very nicely and he came in and, with his own brand of madness, worked very hard to sink the ship. That's a bit harsh. He's a novice coach, but you have to put this in context," Vickery explained.

"He inherited a side, after Basile resigned, that had one win in their previous seven games … and those were against easier teams than Maradona had to face. Maradona's record [in the qualifiers] was four wins in eight games. So his record, statistically, is far better than the experienced coach than he took over from."

Questionable moves

Still, mistakes were made and Maradona often looked flustered on the sidelines, making a rash of ill-advised half-time substitutions and calling upon aging veterans, such as the Martin Palermo and Rolando Schiavi, who were well past their expiration date.

In total, Maradona used a whopping 38 players in eight qualifying matches, far too many for his side to develop any kind of chemistry or collective identity.

With Hernan Crespo no longer in the fold, Argentina was in desperate need of a quality target man to lead the line, which made Maradona's reluctance to call Real Madrid star Gonzalo Higuain until the final two games of the qualifiers all the more puzzling.

But he made plenty of shrewd moves, too, including recalling veteran playmaker Juan Sebastian Veron, who played a pivotal role in Argentina's crucial 1-0 win over Uruguay in Montevideo on the final day of the qualifiers.

He also showed great bravery in benching Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero, two of Argentina's brightest young attackers, after some spotty performances, even though he was second-guessed by a press corps that said the country couldn't win without them.

"He's close to Tevez, really close, because they share a common background, and Aguero is his son-in-law, and he dropped both of them in the last few rounds of qualifiers. That took courage," opined Vickery.

Now that the pressure of qualifying has passed, Maradona can focus on the task at hand - building a side that can win the World Cup.

To that end, fostering an environment of team unity should be his first order of business.

"Before, where he selected 38 players in the qualifiers, he must now think in terms of a squad of 23. What his starting lineup will be, his subs and who the other players will be to fill out the roster," said Vickery.

"Argentina has some fantastic individual talents to call upon. If Maradona can find the right collective structure for that talent to shine, they're going to be one of the teams to beat in South Africa."