An examination of Argentina’s recent history, selection shockers, Diego’s intentions (read: ego) and their world cup chances
Argentina mmmmm!… Messi, Millito, Magic, Mascherano, Maradona …. mmmmmm! Doesn’t Maradona’s name stick out like a sore thumb? Most experts believe so. Would it have been criminal to preview chances of the Albiceleste national team before El Diego trimmed his squad to final 23? Most experts believe so.
So controversial have his methods been that there was a serious chance that Europe’s most effective striker, who carried his team to a historic treble and a Champions League medal after 45 long years, may not have made it to the squad. Just in case you missed, two key members of that Inter Milan team, Zanetti and Cambiasso will be watching the FIFA World cup on tv; they will be joined by Juan Roman Riquelme (arguably Argentina’s favourite son for a long time).
So much has been criticized about soccer’s god, that I may as well spare you from the ignominy. Infact, for the heck of it, let me try representing the flip side.
Diego’s surprise appointment, one and half years ago, was a last ditch effort by the AFA. To his credit, he could have done the easier things – choose the superstars, get media/fans by his side and criticize the stars if they floundered. But Diego is probably more Argentine than any you and I know, or likely to encounter. He has willingly taken blame for the defeats, didn’t mind getting sacked, never gave excuses or blamed officials, kept himself simple and if reports were to be believed was working overtime – including looking at second division players, Argentina Apertura and reconciliation attempt with Riquelme. The AFA has backed him till Copa America 2011, irrespective of results in the WC.
Looking back, the Argentinean national side, in the past 25 yrs, can be divided into two segments. The 1985-1993 era with Maradona, and the other 17 yrs, without him.
The former era has a World Cup win at Mexico, a final date four years later at Italia ’90 and two Copa America triumphs in ’91 and ’93. The latter era Argentina (ever since Diego was banned out of USA ’94) have no Copa America wins (having been beaten by arch enemies Brazil in most of the key encounters) and not been able to go past quarters of any World Cup. This is suprising, since Argentinian players really stormed club level soccer since 1996 – Batistuta, Veron, Crespo, Ortega, Ayala, Redondo, Aimar, Riquelme, Zanetti… the list goes on.
Gheorghe Hagi masterminded Romania to dump them in USA’94, Dennis Bergkamp’s cool control, turn and finish took them out in France’98 and Germany’s efficiency in penalties ended their last edition with defeat and unsavory punches. In between there was 2002, where the blue and white stripes had over 50 shots at goal and yet managed to score just two before being unceremoniously dumped out in the first round. In each of the above four editions, they came in as big time favorites (justifiably), and as luck would have it, in three of them they were part of the “Group of death”.
In SA 2010 their group stage doesn’t seem deathly, by any means. But its Maradona’s overbearing presence (including in this piece), that remains the biggest issue with fans. Enroute to South Africa, Diego did a famous belly dive in a rain soaked water laden pitch at Peru (for me it was worth the late night wake!), gestured his genitals towards journalists (after clinically finishing Uruguay 1-0) and recently ran his car over a reporter’s leg.
Maradona’s final 23 have a huge resemblance with the inconsistent teams of his era; Not a great defence (in current form Samuel is the best centre back on earth, but the likes of Heinze, Demichelis and Otamendi being first choice is worrisome) and some midfielders expected to do a lot of rough tackling (Gutierrez, Mascherano). The key difference is while ‘God’ was the prime and only attacking threat, creator, schemer and striker in the bygone era; Argentina today have taken a pack of wolves – the names of which would make any opposition shake in their pants. In Messi, Milito, Tevez, Aguero, Higuain (and Palermo) you are talking of the most potent striking options in South Africa. (Yes, even better than Spain or Brazil).
Maradona’s eccentric ways will continue – like going for a mass prayer before facing Brazil (during qualifiers). More laughable was Colon defender Ariel Garce’s selection – decided upon after Maradona had a dream where Argies lifted the World Cup and Garce’s face was the only one he could remember. And he will remain the cynosure for most cameras – something his team should actually use to their advantage as it takes undue pressure off them. His coaching traits come from Carlos Bilardo’s school of thought (Argentina’s coach 1983 – 1990) – tough, rough defending and then hitting on the counter.
As a fan you may want to see this option – after seeing your team play dazzling football, 25 pass goals, thrashing minnows for 20 years only to end tournaments in failure. Lionel Messi has a point to prove to his fans back home who believe he is the best player on the planet only for his club. Maradona’s surprise selections – Di Maria, Pastore, Bollati – could catch a few opponents off guard and manage to attract eyeballs of bigger clubs.
The pundit thinks Argentina will not come out of the group stage convincingly, but will do enough to top it. The second round will see them clash with either France or hosts South Africa – where their superior quality will prevail. That would mean a quarters clash with Germany – a team whom they recently beat 1-0 in a friendly at Munich, a result which rekindled hope to all their fans. They should reach the semis and would be an inform team riding on some confidence and inspiration (after several years of ridicule) – where top notch Spain should be awaiting them – and this could be a match which decides the winner of the tournament!