By Paul Gardner
While the USA and Mexico celebrate their qualification for next year's World Cup, Argentina can afford nothing more emphatic than a huge sigh of relief
that it is still -- just -- alive in the fight for a berth in South Africa.
For the Argentines, the game against Peru was a must-win. Anything less would have meant certain consignment
to, at best, a playoff against a Concacaf team (either Honduras or Costa Rica), or outright elimination.
And this is where time plays its tricks. We're deep in deja vu
here: A crowded River Plate stadium, drenching rain, Peru proving a pesky and skillful opponent, time running out -- and a scoreline which meant that Argentina were heading for the lottery of a
The year was 1985, and it was Argentina's final qualifying game. With barely 10 minutes remaining, Peru was leading, 2-1. Then came a moment of sheer raw guts as the veteran
defender Daniel Passarella -- who had been the captain of Argentina's World Cup winning team seven years earlier -- seemed to use sheer will power to force his way through the Peruvian defenders to
get off a long-range shot on goal. The shot hit the inside of the far post, skidded back across the goal where Ricardo Gareca, at full stretch, prodded it into the net.
The 2-2 tie was
enough to qualify Argentina which -- captained by Diego Maradona -- went on to win the 1986 tournament. Such a perfect ending seems unlikely for the current Argentine team. Maradona is still around,
as coach rather than player, and his influence, so far, has been far from convincing. Unless you count Saturday's replay of those 1985 events.
Again, Argentina playing Peru in the River
Plate Stadium, again the rain and the muddy field, and again Peru looks like wrecking Argentina's qualifying chances -- by scoring a tying goal in the 90th minute. Again, Argentina had to produce a
savior, and again it was a veteran -- the 35-year-old forward Martin Palermo -- who saved the day. One of those easy goals that you feel your grandmother could have scored, a tap in from maybe four
yards -- but a goal of enormous meaning, one that kept Argentina alive -- and one that probably saved Maradona's job.
Perhaps for the first time in his short coaching spell with
Argentina, Maradona's instinct proved the right one. When it came time for a halftime substitution, time to bring on someone to inject life into Argentina's flagging offense, Maradona had two big
European-based stars waiting for the call -- Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero. He ignored them, and went for the 6-foot-3 Palermo.
That was a move that seemed to be inviting mockery. After
all -- Martin Palermo? This was a guy who had not played for the national team in 10 years, and who was remembered -- and of course ridiculed -- mostly because he had brought off the seemingly
impossible feat of missing three penalty kicks in the same game, against Colombia in 1999.
Crazy happenings seemed to pursue Palermo. Inevitably his goalscoring feats with Boca Juniors
(81 goals in 102 games between 1997 and 2000) led to an offer from Europe. Off he went to Palermo to join the Spanish club Villarreal. A year later Palermo celebrated a goal by jumping onto a low
wall, which collapsed as the Villarreal fans surged forward. Palermo ended up with a broken leg, an injury that put him out of action for two months. His form subsequently suffered, and after being
traded to second division club Alaves, he returned to Boca Juniors in 2004.
Boca is clearly home to Palermo -- since returning he has scored 83 goals in 147 games. And he has recently hit
the headlines for yet another believe-it-or-not type happening. Earlier this month, in an Argentine league game against Velez Sarsfield, Palermo scored on a header from 45 yards out, when he got his
head to a clearance from the opposing goalkeeper and headed it powerfully back into the empty net.
Maybe that was something of a fluke -- but that was not the word that Maradona used to
describe Palermo's last-minute goal against Peru. After performing an ecstatic but ungainly belly-flop onto the muddy field, Maradona described the goal as "the miracle of Saint Palermo."
But the toughest test of all awaits Argentina in its final qualifying game -- against old rival Uruguay in Montevideo. Uruguay has everything to play for -- it needs a win to pip Argentina to the
fourth automatic qualification. For Argentina, a tie will be good enough. But should Argentina lose -- and should Ecuador win in Santiago against Chile (a team that has already qualified) -- then the
Argentines are out and South Africa 2006 will be a much depleted World Cup -- without Argentina, without the world's best player Lionel Messi and without the remarkable Saint Palermo.