WORLD CUP: Team profile – argentina (group c)

Although they have yet to emerge from the shadow cast by the legendary Diego Armando Maradona, Argentina invariably figure among the select band of favourites for the FIFA World Cup, a status unaltered by their poor showing at Korea/Japan 2002. With a little more experience now under their belt, the two-time world champions are back for another tilt at the title after becoming the first South American side to qualify for Germany.

Qualification proved comfortable enough with 34 points, nine fewer than the previous campaign, meaning they had to settle for second place behind Brazil — the first time Argentina had failed to top the group since the qualifiers for USA 94. In notching up 10 wins, four draws and four defeats, Argentina scored 29 goals and conceded a mere 17, a goal difference second only to Brazil in the group.

In what was a mixed bag of a campaign, Argentina kept intact their 12-year unbeaten run at home, defeated Bolivia for the first time in 32 years, and booked their place in Germany by emphatically beating Brazil.

By the time Germany 2006 comes around, two whole decades will have passed since a Maradona-inspired Argentina tasted glory at Mexico 1986. At Italia 90, they came tantalisingly close to matching their arch-rival Brazil’s feat of three world titles in four attempts, only to lose the Final to West Germany. Four years later, Maradona led his side to USA 94 but he was ejected from the tournament after failing a drugs test.

The highlight of a satisfactory performance at France 98 was a second-round victory over England. But joy soon turned to despair when the Albiceleste fell to a superb Dennis Bergkamp strike in the final minutes of the quarter-final against the Netherlands. They lacked the spirit and flair of the team that qualified in style for Korea/Japan, only to be surprisingly dumped out of the competition in the first round.

Not content with having the likes of Juan Roman Riquelme, Javier Mascherano and Javier Saviola in their ranks, as well as the experienced Roberto Ayala, Juan Pablo Sorin, Pablo Aimar and Hernan Crespo, the Argentinians have just unearthed another rough diamond ready to make his mark: Lionel Messi.