Argentina ended an embarrassing campaign by qualifying for the World Cup with a 1-0 win over Uruguay on Wednesday.
Argentina might have missed its first World Cup since 1970 if it had lost at packed Centenario Stadium.
But moments after Uruguay defender Martin Caceres was ejected for his second yellow card, substitute Mario Bolatti scored amid a goalmouth scramble in the 84th minute to send a relieved Argentina to the finals in South Africa next year.
Argentina claimed the fourth and final automatic berth in South America, while Uruguay finished fifth and earned another chance to qualify through the playoffs next month.
Uruguay will meet the No. 4 team from CONCACAF, either Costa Rica or Honduras.
Maradona, an icon as a player but under enormous pressure as a coach, should have been relieved by the victory. Many questioned how a team with many of the world’s top players laboured so hard to qualify.
Maradona cast doubt on whether he would go to South Africa.
“First I have to speak with Grondona,” Maradona said, referring to Argentine football federation president Julio Grondona.
Maradona jumped between contentment and anger in a news conference in which he lashed out at his critics in a tirade laced with profanities.
“Thanks to my players, today I was consecrated as a coach.”
He credited the win to all the support he received from the fans, but said some Argentine media treated him like badly.
“To those who treated me like garbage, I say were are in World Cup with full honours.”
In a match full of fouls called by referee Carlos Amarilla of Paraguay, Caceres’ last turned out to be pivotal.
Caceres tripped up Juan Sebastian Veron during a clean break just outside the box, and before he even received the yellow and red cards, Caceres covered his head with his jersey in shame and frustration as he was sent off.
From the free kick, Lionel Messi and Veron smoothly set up Bolatti, just four minutes after he’d been sent in by coach Diego Maradona, to shoot low past Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.
Brazil, Chile and Paraguay had earlier clinched the first three automatic berths, leaving Maradona’s much criticized team to venture to Montevideo, where Argentina had never won a qualifier in three previous attempts.
Argentina wound up fourth with 28 points, and Uruguay finished with 24, and Ecuador 23 after losing to Chile 1-0.
Uruguay: Fernando Muslera, Maximiliano Pereira, Andres Scotti, Diego Lugano, Martin Caceres, Diego Perez, Walter Gargano (Cristian Rodriguez, 70), Jorge Rodriguez (Edinson Cavani, 60), Alvaro Pereira, Luis Suarez (Sebastian Abreu, 78), Diego Forlan.
Argentina: Sergio Romero, Nicolas Otamendi, Rolando Schiavi, Martin Demichelis, Gabriel Heinze, Jonas Gutierrez, Javier Mascherano, Juan Sebastian Veron, Angel Di Maria (Fabian Monzon, 75), Gonzalo Higuain (Mario Bolatti, 80), Lionel Messi (Carlos Tevez, 86).