By Rex Gowar
Javier Mascherano is a small man but Maradona, on taking charge of the team in 2008, had no hesitation in handing the midfielder the armband he wore to victory at the 1986 finals in Mexico.
"My team is Mascherano and 10 others," Maradona said on being handed the reins halfway through the 2010 qualifiers after coach Alfio Basile suddenly resigned.
"I feel a great pride and responsibility being the team's captain," Mascherano, who turns 26 next week, told reporters at the squad's base in the University of Pretoria sports complex.
"To be the captain of the Argentine national team obliges you to be the link between the squad and the coach and that's the best thing that can happen to you," he said puffing out his chest as he was surrounded by microphones and tape recorders.
Mascherano models himself on another little big man, former Argentina central defender Roberto Ayala who won 115 caps and led the side to the 2006 quarter-finals.
Ayala, who also played at the 1998 World Cup but who was injured warming up for Argentina's opening match at the 2002 finals and saw no action in Japan, holds a national record 63 matches as captain.
"Ayala is a very noble man. He stopped playing (international football) because that was his decision, but Roberto left his mark without doubt," Mascherano said.
"(Javier Zanetti) was also a great captain but Roberto was for many more years and that shows. I was lucky to play in the same team as both and they are role models to follow."
Zanetti, holder of a record 136 Argentina caps and who led Inter Milan to victory in this season's Champions League, played at the 1998 and 2002 finals. He missed out in 2006 and was the most criticized omission by Maradona for this year's tournament in South Africa kicking off in a week's time.
Argentina start out against Nigeria, whom they beat in the first-round phase in 1994 in the United States in Maradona's last finals as a player and again in their opening match in 2002, a Group B match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on June 12. They go on to play South Korea and Greece.
(Editing by John Mehaffey)