Will Sabella have time to revive Argentina?

November 10, 2011

Not Leo Messi, and not even Leo Messi plus a supporting cast of Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero, Javier Mascherano, Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi does the trick. For the forthcoming qualifier against Bolivia at the Monumental, where Argentina lifted the World Cup in 1978, the home side has been unable to sell all its tickets.

As the newspaper La Nación points out, Messi himself has been the prime attraction at packed stadiums in four continents over the past two years. But of all places – in his home country – he, or more precisely the team, fails to attract a full house.

Guillermo Tofoni, president of World Eleven (which organizes the Argentine national team friendlies), famously quipped that with Maradona on the bench (and Messi on the pitch) setting up matches for Argentina was like organizing a tour for the Beatles. Maradona may be gone, but is the sight of Messi in action really so uninspiring? Is Argentina so poor to watch? Is the prospect of seeing the team make its way to the World Cup and dream of a famous repetition of the Maracanazo at the hands of Messi and company in 2014 really so routine and mundane that supporters aren’t even willing to go and see them play?

The Friday afternoon kick off doesn’t help bring in the crowds, but there are other reasons behind the indifference towards the albiceleste. The relationship between the public and the players has been severely tested with major disappointments at the last two tournaments. And with Brazil hosting the World Cup, and South America maintaining the same the number of qualification spots for the competition, Argentina failing to make it to the tournament is virtually impossible and, at this stage of proceedings, unthinkable.

Yet while for many supporters the World Cup in Brazil may seem far away, Alejandro Sabella has little time to deliver results in his reconstruction job. And by results it is worth pointing out that it's not just the scoreline after 90 minutes where improvements need to be shown. His task is to find a structure and balance in the team that has been lacking over the past two years.

Sixteen months ago in Cape Town, where Argentina lost 4-0 to Germany in the World Cup quarterfinals, the gung-ho midfield three was made up of Maxi Rodriguez, Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria. Maradona was soon removed from office after the tournament, and his replacement, Sergio Batista, went for a considerably more prosaic lineup with three recognized holding midfielders in Mascherano, Ever Banega and Fernando Gago.

The Batista experiment was short-lived. A year later, he too was removed from office after seeing the team lose to Uruguay in the Copa America quarters. As hosts, anything but winning the competition would have compromised Batista. Not progressing to the final four was inadmissible.

A miserable 12 months was only compounded by the insults and accusations between Maradona and Batista. In truth the traffic was one-way, but legal action has begun and only adds acrimony to an already tense situation.

It is in this context Alejandro Sabella took over with low-key and modest rhetoric compared to both Maradona and Batista, speaking of regaining pride in the national team and finding its own identity.

The win over Chile in the first World Cup qualifier masked clear faults in the team set up. But nonetheless, a clinical Gonzalo Higuaín hat trick, not to mention Leo Messi’s first goal for his country in 16 matches, put early nerves to rest.

Then came Venezuela. "I'd be happy to win half-nil," said Sabella in the build up. His comment was not received well. He was criticized for being unambitious, negative and defeatist. Sabella was referring to the need to win points, irrespective of the performance, rather than setting out his masterplan of how Argentina will play under him. Indeed, as he told Olé earlier this week, "I like teams that dominate the match, keep possession and move the ball around... I would say I love the more cerebral players."

Nonetheless, the starting line up against Venezuela - which included five defenders - certainly appeared to be playing for a half-nil win. Instead of scraping a win, or even a draw, it was a historic and humiliating 1-0 defeat, with Venezuela’s first ever victory over Argentina.

Yet when Sabella called up lower-profile players, Sosa in this instance, the reaction was to dismiss him as simply not good enough to play for the national team. Far and beyond the Sosa/Pastore debate, however, is the central problem. Personnel in the advanced midfield role is not the team’s issues. The problems are at the back.

Hernán Crespo, the former Argentina striker, said this week that Javier Zanetti is the only full back the country produced in last 20 years. Sabella, meanwhile, admits that a change of guard is needed in the back line. The likes of Napoli centre back Federico Fernandez and Spartak Moscow’s Marcos Rojo have been brought in, but even looking to gradually phase in a new generation of defenders is not proving easy, as the poor organization and lack of leadership on display in the defeat in Puerto la Cruz to Venezuela proved. Employing Mascherano in defense, in the same role he performs for Barcelona, is an option Sabella admitted to considering, but it would only create another problem. There are few top-class replacements with similar characteristics to El Jefecito for the midfield job.

Sabella has plenty of time to address these problems and mold the team into a cohesive unit for the World Cup. Just how much patience the supporters afford him, however, is another question.