MONTEVIDEO: Fear not. The greatest story in football is still on after Diego Maradona’s Argentina scraped into the World Cup in predictably dramatic circumstances.Mario Bolatti’s goal six minutes from time on Wednesday ensured the two-time champions secured victory away to Uruguay, booking their tickets to South Africa next year and keeping alive the tantalising prospect of Maradona becoming just the third – and most unlikely – man to win a World Cup as player and coach.Brazil’s Mario Zagallo (1958, ’62 as player; 1970 as coach) and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer (1974 as player; 1990 as coach) are the only men who have achieved the feat. Each was an extraordinary accomplishment, but they would both pale beside Maradona’s fascinating story should Argentina lift the trophy in Johannesburg on July 11.That Maradona is still alive after his troubles with cocaine and junk food, let alone coaching his national team, is grounds for incredulity. In any case, his presence will enliven the tournament – a prospect that looked unlikely throughout a chaotic campaign in which he used more than 70 players and came under criticism as Argentina’s hopes of qualifying looked to have disappeared.”It’s going to all Argentinians, except the journalists,” Maradona said. ”They [journalists] treat me like dirt, but we qualified with honour. I dedicate this to all of the Argentinian people and my family, but one sector [the media] does not deserve it because they treated me like garbage. They invented fights with [Argentina general manager Carlos] Bilardo, among other things.”This qualification is thanks to my players, who played like men and now consecrate my role as a coach.”Maradona also wished Uruguay well in the play-offs and said they were a worthy opponent on the night. ”Uruguay has a very good team and coach in [Oscar] Tabarez that I admire and respect. Uruguay can qualify for the World Cup. That is what I want because I have many friends in their country.”Brazil, Chile and Paraguay had already made sure of their places in the finals. Uruguay finished fifth and face a play-off against Costa Rica from the CONCACAF region to decide their World Cup fate.In a poor match with few opportunities, the crucial moment came when Uruguay were reduced to 10 men after Jose Martin Caceres was red-carded for a foul on Jonas Gutierrez. From the ensuing free kick, Juan Veron had a shot charged down, but Bolatti – on the field for just four minutes after replacing Gonzalo Higuain – reacted quickest to the loose ball to beat Nestor Muslera in the Uruguayan goal.Maradona opted to leave Carlos Tevez on the bench alongside Martin Palermo, who grabbed the last-minute goal which saw off Peru on Saturday.Uruguay, needing a win to make sure of automatic qualification, were on top early, with Argentina unsurprisingly nervous and defender Gabriel Heinze picking up a booking after just nine minutes.Andres Scotti almost gave the home side the lead at the famous Estadio Monumental, but his header slipped by Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero’s post.Lionel Messi, who has yet to shine under the Maradona regime despite his performances for Barcelona, attempted to catch out Muslera with a long distance free-kick.The gusting win inside the stadium kept Muslera on his guard, but he gathered comfortably as Argentina desperately looked for their first win since 1976 in the Uruguayan capital.The goalless half-time stalemate suited Argentina as Ecuador, the only other rivals for the last qualifying spot, were also being held 0-0 at the interval by Chile in Santiago.The low-quality affair continued after the break with the first opening not coming until the 73rd minute when Uruguay’s Diego Lugano headed wide from a Diego Forlan free-kick. Uruguay continued to press against an Argentine team happy to pack seven defenders behind the ball as the clock ticked down before Bolatti, in just his third international, put his country into the finals.In Santiago, Chile took the lead against Ecuador thanks to a 51st-minute strike from Humberto Suazo.Elsewhere, Brazil were held to a 0-0 draw at home by Venezuela, while rock-bottom Peru finished with a 1-0 win over Bolivia. Agencies
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