It seems absurd to speak of Argentina in terms of last chances, given its flow of talent over the past two decades. Yet, its form in recent youth tournaments has suffered a serious decline, and it may be that, if success is not forthcoming, Argentina comes to look at these last years as a tremendous waste.
This is a hugely talented squad, but it is also the oldest squad in the tournament – the youngest player is 24-year-old left-back Marcos Rojo – and that means there is a certain urgency as it begins its World Cup campaign against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.
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Under Jose Pekerman, now Colombia’s coach, and Hugo Tocalli, Argentina won five out of seven Under-20 World Youth Cups between 1995 and 2007. Five of the likely starting line-up – Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Garay, Fernando Gago and Pablo Zabaleta – were in the squad that won the Under-20 World Cup in 2005.
As were Lucas Biglia, who is in the squad, and Gabriel Paletta, who has been called up for Italy – a remarkable progression given the usual rate of attrition from youth football (the Spain squad from that tournament, for instance, featured only Cesc Fabregas and David Silva or players from the present squad, while not a single Brazilian made the progression).
Of the 2007 squad, only Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Romero are in this squad. Yet for all that talent, Argentina hasn’t won a senior tournament since the Copa America in 1993, while the only side it’s beaten in a knockout game at a World Cup since 1990 is Mexico (twice).
The recent story of Argentinian football is on of underachievement on a spectacular scale. “It’s true and we can’t find the reasons, it’s not easy,” said Tocallli. “Nobody can say that Argentina lack players. We do have great players – 2002, 2006, 2010. .. but winning the World Cup is not easy.
“Fitness is vital, they can be tired and it’s difficult; luck, also, because in 2006 we were winning 1-0, and had to make two forced substitutions and everything changed and when they equalized we had Messi, [Javier] Saviola and [Pablo] Aimar watching from the bench. I’m a fan of long-time projects, and they offer results, look at Spain, it started with the youth teams… and the same with Germany, [Jurgen] Klinsmann and then [Jogi] Low, who was his assistant. Argentina has gone crazy, switching from projects very quickly, without having stability.”
The present project is a swing back to pragmatism after the confused idealism of Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista. Alejandro Sabella has said that he hates comparisons to 1986, but this squad, like that one, is designed to get the best out of a player recognized as the best in the world – for Maradona in 1986, read Lionel Messi now.
“I don’t like the word favorite,” Sabella said, when asked if his tactical approach was to create a platform for a star. “We’ll leave it for others. But, yes, to have a player like Messi is what every manager wants. You try and create a propitious atmosphere for him to play his best.”
Sabella even played under Carlos Bilardo, the coach of that 1986 side, at Estudiantes, and acknowledges him as the main architect of his philosophy, while insisting he is his own man. Like Bilardo, Sabella also seems set to switch to a back five at the last.
Bilardo waited until the quarter-final against England before shifting to the system with wing-backs in 1986, but it seems Sabella will start the tournament with a 5-3-2, the center-forward Gonzalo Higuain, who has ankle problems but probably will be fit enough to play, being left out for central defender Hugo Campagnaro. Argentina did play with a 5-3-2 in beating Bosnia 2-0 in a friendly in St Louis.
“I haven’t decided anything,” Sabella said unconvincingly on Saturday. “I could put on four attackers but they can’t find space and then you have less players when you lose it. An attacker doesn’t allow us to win the ball. It’s about quality and occupying the space. I have a way of thinking, that I heard from a great trainer, that you can’t attack well without defending well and can’t defend well without attacking well. You have to have order.”
Even the fact that there is a discussion, though, seems strange, given how effective the 4-3-3 had been in qualifying. Was it, Sabella was asked, a compliment to Bosnia and its attacking prowess?
“It has to do more with other things, but I can’t say what publicly,” Sabella said mysteriously, opening the door to a wave of conspiracy theories. Were there cliques or fallings out within the squad? Had Messi, whose power within the squad is said to be profound, demanded to play up front in a pair with Aguero, as they did in that Under-20 World Cup in 2005?
It was all strangely disconcerting, the mood one of doubt when Argentina’s form in qualifying should have meant it was charging at this World Cup. And this is an opportunity it cannot afford to waste.