After leading his country to their worst defeat in six decades — a 6-1 World Cup qualifier pasting in Bolivia — Argentina coach Diego Maradona has his back to the wall.
Having only taken over last year, as a surprise successor to Alfio Basile, the 1986 World Cup winner started off with friendly wins in Scotland and France and then last week the two-time world champions hammered Venezuela 4-0 in his first competitive match in charge.
But Wednesday’s humiliation in La Paz — to his credit Maradona did not blame the high altitude — ramped up the temperature of the hot seat, even if qualification for next year’s finals in South Africa should still present a formality with the team still only two points behind second-place Brazil.
Four sides go through to the finals automatically and there seems little chance of Argentina missing out, but Maradona candidly admitted his men’s shortcomings.
“We just have to start again and hope that nothing like this ever happens again,” said Maradona, who praised Bolivia as the better side.
“The altitude was not an issue. We came up against a team that gave very little away and basically they were the better team,” he said. “Whoever played against that Bolivian team would have suffered the same fate as us. I suffered with them [the players]. Every Bolivian goal was a dagger in my heart.”
The thin air of the Bolivian capital had already done for group leaders Paraguay but the manner of the Argentines’ humbling 3,650m above sea level was more than enough to bring the Albiceleste down to Earth with a bump.
The likes of Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez cut disconsolate figures after the loss at the Hernando Siles stadium, which rocked with joyous home fans as a tide of Bolivian green ran the visitors ragged.
The scale of the beating will up the pressure on a coach who has yet to prove himself in the job despite Maradona’s lingering cult status from his playing days.
Anything less than a win against Colombia in the next qualifier on June 6 in Buenos Aires would be a further blow to his credibility. After that, the Argentines have to make another difficult trip to Quito to play Ecuador.
Playing at only 750m lower than La Paz the Ecuadoreans have held Brazil and Paraguay, the top two sides in the group, over the past week to prove they are no pushovers on their own patch.
Maradona has, however, bounced back from crisis before and received tacit backing from Messi on Thursday when the Barcelona starlet insisted: “It’s impossible to play in La Paz.”
Messi accepted Maradona had sought to play down the altitude issue but told reporters in Buenos Aires that “while I don’t want to contradict Diego, it is impossible to play in La Paz. That’s my opinion after playing there and some of my teammates think the same.”
Teammate Javier Zanetti joined Maradona in praising Bolivia’s performance but said the high altitude was a problem.
“Some of us had a terrible headache — though we don’t want to use that as an excuse,” the midfielder told reporters.