Diego Maradona cast doubt over his future as Argentina coach on Saturday, saying he'd been drained of all his energy by a 4-0 defeat to Germany — an experience he likened to being floored by Muhammad Ali.
Looking exhausted and heartbroken, Maradona left the Green Point Stadium in Cape Town a shadow of the confident man who strode around in suits, soaking up applause for Argentina's strong opening to the World Cup.
"I may leave tomorrow, but I'd like that these boys continue showing who they are and keep playing real Argentina football," Maradona said.
Asked to clarify his plans, he said "I'll have to think carefully about it ... and talk with my family, and the players. There are many issues here."
Maradona, considered by many the best to ever play the game, was derided in Argentina before the tournament for leading the team by instinct and emotion rather than a tactical plan. He lashed out at his critics with a stream of profanities when Argentina qualified for the World Cup after a draining struggle.
After three group stage victories and a convincing 3-1 win over Mexico in the round of 16, even his detractors began questioning whether they had underestimated his coaching abilities.
Maradona's affectionate hugs and go-get-them pep talks seemed to yield better results than the tactical advice handed out by more serious coaches like England's Fabio Capello.
Then Germany came along. Argentina and Maradona didn't know how to respond when Thomas Mueller's early goal left the South Americans trailing for the first time in the tournament.
Maradona made no changes at halftime, even though his team had struggled throughout the first half, losing possession as soon as it crossed into the German area. He sent on midfielder Javier Pastore for defender Nicolas Otamendi after Germany went up 2-0 and was getting ready to further boost the attack with striker Sergio Aguero when Arne Friedrich made it 3-0.
With the game virtually over, Maradona hugged Aguero – his son-in-law -- and clung to him as the Germans celebrated.
"This is the most difficult experience of my life, because to [lose] in front of so many good players, such good people, such good professionals is like getting punched by Muhammad Ali," he said. "I don't have any energy left."
He said he'd only felt similar emotions in life on the day he retired from football.
Still, Maradona didn't accept any blame for the crushing defeat, and lashed out at a reporter who questioned whether his critics in Argentina might be satisfied with the loss.
"Are you joking," he said. "This is a country where you live and breathe football. I don't think that anyone will be happy when the team loses 4-0."
Maradona said Argentina was on the right path and that "whoever comes after me" should continue its attacking style of play despite the collapse against Germany.
A day earlier, Maradona had been all smiles, joking with reporters and assuring them he had studied the Germans carefully. However, Argentina looked like it had learned little from Germany's 4-1 trouncing of England.
Coach Joachim Loew said he had anticipated Maradona's lineup and that Messi would fall back into the midfield. He had also observed that Argentina's defenders got little help from the attacking players in the lineup — something the Germans pounced on repeatedly.
"Their defensive midfielders don't do much in the attack and the attackers don't come back readily," Loew said. "There was space there for us to go in with four to five players."
Loew sat down for most of the match, but got up at key moments, pointing and gesturing to his players. Maradona paced nervously in front of the Argentine bench, clapping to motivate his players or watching the match with arms folded over his chest.
Team captain Javier Mascherano didn't want to speculate on what lies ahead for the coach, saying that was a matter for "Diego" and the Argentine football federation.
Defender Gabriel Heinze spoke in affectionate terms, calling Maradona a "person that we love and that gives everything to us."