This little-known upstart could really break out with a big World Cup... Sorry. Bad joke. Little mystery remains about the near-mute little man. At 26, he is in the thick of his prime and as capable of deciding a game in a fine flash as ever. However, extensive injury trouble has hampered his club season with Barcelona, further destabilizing their relatively rocky season. Sometimes injuries during the season mean a star player shows up to the World Cup fresh. Sometimes they turn up hobbled. Which will it be?
Action Images / ReutersENRIQUE MARCARIAN
Two-time winners and two-time losing finalists, Argentina are typically a lightning rod for controversy at the World Cup. The Videla regime may or may not have fixed the 1978 tournament on their home soil. Diego Maradona may or may not have been on drugs or performance enhancers when he led them to a second title in 1986. And those are just a few of the incidents and allegations that seem to forever surround this team. Since reaching three finals in four tournaments between 1978 and 1990, however, Argentina have failed to advance past the quarterfinals.
Action Images / ReutersGARY HERSHORN
At the last World Cup, Argentina were lead by Maradona, who proved as unpredictable as a manager as he was as a player, both on the field and off. He burned through more than 100 different players in less than two years in charge and seemed to have found a successful formula heading into the World Cup: a fairly defensive setup, by Argentinean standards. And then, being Maradona, he threw caution to the wind and made his team attack unabashedly in South Africa. Alejandro Sabella, who followed Sergio Batista as Maradona’s successor in 2011, has, in a way, built on what seemed like a scattershot idea. He has kept up the all-out attack – midfielder Javier Mascherano describes it as “anarchic” – playing to Argentina’s strengths. Because the defense is pedestrian and the attacking talent overwhelming. But he has done so in a climate of stability. He mostly uses the same players in the same way. A calm has, for once, descended over Argentina’s camp.
LatinContent/Getty ImagesBuda Mendes/STF
How they got here
Yes, the two-year CONMEBOL qualifying stage, consisting of a nine-team double-round robin, was devoid of the Brazilian hosts this year, but that doesn’t make Argentina’s finish at the top of the pile any less impressive. A 9-2-5 (W-D-L) record in South America’s daunting cauldrons and dizzying altitudes with a region-best 35-15 scoring record is a great yield, given the tricky circumstances.
AFP/Getty ImagesDANIEL GARCIA
Peachy. Group F couldn’t have been any weaker for the Argentines. Bosnia & Herzegovina are the best other team, and they’ve never been to a World Cup before. Iran probably won’t be in any shape to compete. And mercurial Nigeria, while athletically gifted, probably won’t put up much of a fight either.
Action Images / ReutersSERGIO MORAES
Round of 16 prospects
Promising. They cross over with Group E, which contains France, Switzerland and Ecuador. So all they really need to do is avoid France – by each winning their group, for instance – and they could be into the quarterfinals without breaking a sweat.
Action Images / ReutersJORGE ADORNO
Along with Brazil, Argentina probably fits into the second tier of favorites, one notch below Spain and Germany. Playing on their home continent will help. And no other country can boast the attacking weapons Argentina do, even without the ostracized Carlos Tevez. Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Angel di Maria form a fearsome fivesome of forwards. With a solid corps of midfielders and defenders, a semifinal berth should fall well within the Albiceleste’s capabilities.