Into the intimidating world of Argentine hooligans
Football is a ‘beautiful game’ and Argentina has produced arguably the two best examples of such beauty in modern football. However, beneath this beauty lies a world full of violence, intimidation and cruelty. This article takes us through those alleys of Argentina. This article was first published in ‘Tiro: A football odyssey from Amazon to Alps’ , Rattis Books, UK, June 2016.
La Caminito is the little traditional walkway through the neighbourhood of La Boca – famous for its cobblestone streets, vividly colourful houses made of corrugated metal and passionate tango dancers. It was an afternoon of late-October 2011, with warm wind blowing along with bright sunlight. The wall murals, painted houses, blue and gold buses, art houses and scattered easels created a picturesque landscape of the old port city.
That afternoon, however, the cobblestoned streets were all hijacked by a sweaty, half-naked, chanting and howling crowd. They were all going to La Bombonera to support the beloved team from their neighbourhood. They were waving blue and gold flags and clothes while marching down the streets of Garboldi. The traffic of the city had surrendered to the football hysteria. As they approached the stadium they could see the long old walls of Bombonera. One could easily spot an abundance of firecrackers, alcohol and drugs inside the crowd, atop the open vehicles. The colourful walls of Caminito were reverberating with the chant, ‘Boca mi vida es la alegría’ – ‘Boca you are the joy of my life’.
Boca Juniors were playing Atletico de Rafaela that day. They were unbeaten for their last 23 games and came to La Bombonera as the leader of Apertura 2011. Juan Roman Riquelme was missing from the first eleven due to a serious injury, so were Lucas Viatri and Dario Cvitanich. Bombonera was full as always, decorated with incessantly screaming fans, smoke bombs, giant blue and yellow flags, and countless swirling ribbons and ticker tapes. It was a convincing 3–1 win for the home side as their young forward, Nicolas Blandi scored a brace. Surprisingly, the joy of victory was tempered by the apprehension of a civil war among the fans. The gallery was divided on that fateful day. Even more, tension was building up off the field among the Boca fans which could overshadow the resounding victory of the ‘Xeneizes’ (Boca is also known as ‘Xeneizes’ as it was formed initially by Italian immigrants, mostly of Genoese origin). Behind the vibrant colours and celebration, there was a hint of terror looming large.
Mauro Martin was present there proudly wearing his famous fisherman hat that had ‘Boca Juniors Una Passion’ stitched on it. The tattoo on his hand flashed in the bright sunlight. It was of his only son Blas Giunta, named after one of the Boca idols of his childhood. The strongly built man was the supreme leader of ‘La Doce’, Boca’s most organised, passionate and notorious fan group. They occupied the famous North Terrace of the gallery, which they had been occupying for the last 50 years. The South side was led by the man who was known for his white hair and brutality. He was Rafael Di Zeo, former boss of ‘La Doce’ and as well as of Mauro Martin, who had just come back from prison and had returned with 2,000 followers surrounding him to reclaim his lost cathedral. The game of thrones was about to begin, where bullets, bloodshed and betrayal were just another facet of life.
Welcome to La Bombonera; welcome to the intimidating world of Argentine hooligans.
Belying the fears, nothing went wrong that afternoon. However, beneath the vibrant atmosphere of Albiceleste football, everything was functioning improperly. Barra Brava, as they are called in South America, are groups of organised football fans of respective clubs – a culture that is well prevalent all over South America, and widespread in Argentina. They sing passionately, chant fanatically and play drums throughout the games. The city of Buenos Aires, in particular, boasts the highest concentration of football clubs in the world with more than twenty teams who call Buenos Aires their home with a fanatically passionate fan base supporting each of them. Football is a social identity here, an emblem of pride and glory. The ‘beautiful game’ is the sole motivation for people living in the slums of Buenos Aires. Amidst poverty and poor living conditions, football is something they desperately cling on to.
Belying the fears, nothing went wrong that afternoon. However, beneath the vibrant atmosphere of Albiceleste football, everything was functioning improperly. Barra Brava, as they are called in South America, are groups of organised football fans of respective clubs – a culture that is well prevalent all over South America, and widespread in Argentina. They sing passionately, chant fanatically and play drums throughout the games. The city of Buenos Aires, in particular, boasts the highest concentration of football clubs in the world with more than twenty teams who call Buenos Aires their home with a fanatically passionate fan base supporting each of them. Football is a social identity here, an emblem of pride and glory. The ‘beautiful game’ is the sole motivation for people living in the slums of Buenos Aires. Amidst poverty and poor living conditions, football is something they desperately cling on to.
The ultra culture in Argentina is a little different from what we are used to see in Europe. Like the European Ultras, Barras Bravas also have a genuine inclination towards organisation, but are largely dominated by neighbourhood sentiments. The chants in Europe are mostly short, powerful and aggressive. In Argentina they are longer in duration, lower in aggression, but extremely melodious. However, what sets them a class apart from all their counterparts is the degree of violence among the rival factions coupled with strong political motives and financial exploitation. The style of hooliganism and fan violence in Argentina is as idiosyncratic in nature as their unique style of football. ‘La Barra Brava’, which literally means ‘fierce opponents’, imposes a strong hierarchical organisation that controls the local football scenes of Argentina to a great extent. Crime, extortion, manipulation, drugs, gang wars, deaths are few of the traits injected by the hooligan culture. Imagining an organised band of thugs running a mini mafia organisation behind the pulsating colours of football – could give you a strong sense about how the gangs operate. However, as they say, you probably never experience the same unless you live in that intimidating world.
‘Dale, dale, Bo! Dale, dale, Bo! Dale, dale, Bo! Bo-ca! Let’s go, Boca!’ ‘Bombonera’ was brimming with 40,000 fanatics. They were all dressed up in blue and gold – tapping, dancing and screaming. When Di Zeo entered the Bombonera, he was there to exhibit his power to reclaim his position. He continuously sang from the stand to support his team, and so did his loyal followers around him. On the other side, Mauro Martin was not ready to lose his sovereignty either. There were continuous vows of vengeance exchanged between the two factions.
‘Oh lele, oh lala, we are going to kill all the traitors’, Di Zeo chanted followed by some equally offensive remarks from the other terrace.
The history of the rivalry goes a long way back. Di Zeo took the power of ‘La Doce’ (The twelfth Man) from Jose Barrita, alias ‘Grandpa’ in 1994. Earlier, in the 1960s and 1970s, the nature of the Barras in Argentina was different. Initially, it was started with clubs allowing the Barras free entrance to the games and giving away free shirts and other merchandise to them, while they needed their votes to stay in power in the club. However, as the ‘Barras’ exerted more and more influence on the club’s financial matters, their demands escalated gradually. ‘Grandpa’ was one of the pioneers to start selling illegal drugs in the 1980s and gave La Doce a more entrepreneurial dimension with a new facet of terror and ambushes. After Grandpa’s demise, Rafael, along with his brother Fernando Di Zeo, raised the activities of the organisation even more. As time passed, La Doce became more violent, and the Di Zeo brothers led several fights and riots against rival hooligans and the police. In 2005, Di Zeo was sentenced to four years of imprisonment for aggravated oppression using weapons during a 1999 game against Chacarita Juniors, where he attacked rival fans violently and left them injured. Not only that, he was also convicted with possible links with Mario Segovia, ‘the king of ephedrine’. This was the time when Buenos Aires saw the rise of Mauro Martin. He, along with Maximiliano Mazzaro, used to be the chief commandants of Di Zeo brothers. Martin joined the gang as a passionate fan, who screamed through the entire game, jumped to every beat of the drums. Mauro came closer to Rafael when he gave boxing lessons to the chief of the La Doce at Club Leopardi, and the bond gradually became stronger. He took charge of La Doce immediately after Rafael was sent behind bars in 2007, winning a fight against Falcignio Alexander at Porto Alegre, just before a phenomenal performance of Juan Roman Riquelme against Gremio in Copa Libertadores final. The new chief of Bombonera promptly revealed to the newspaper Ole: ‘My friendship with Rafa goes beyond the ground. We are friends, but today I sweep the management.’’
The saga of betrayal took a new turn when Mauro refused to give up leadership when Rafael was released on parole. No major clash happened after the game against Atletico de Rafaela, but that was only the beginning. The brutality showed its true colour after a few months. On 25 August 2012, Mauro Martín was attacked by the rival faction, led by Rafael, as they were stopped by police 21 kilometres away from Rosario on Santa Fe motorway. Martin was shot, which left him with a perforated intestine. He survived, but Rafael Di Zeo announced his long-awaited return loudly.
Mauro Martín was attacked by the rival faction, led by Rafael, as they were stopped by police 21 kilometres away from Rosario on Santa Fe motorway. Martin was shot, which left him with a perforated intestine. He survived, but Rafael Di Zeo announced his long-awaited return loudly.
The hostility is not only confined to the neighbourhood of Boca. It’s everywhere – in every neighbourhood, every slum, and every club. The operations are well planned, the violence is well executed and most importantly there is a heavy amount of money involved. Every Barra has been backed by top individuals of their respective clubs or by one of the political parties. This is an ugly side of the story for a premier football nation like Argentina that has gifted talents like Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi to the world. Diego himself maintained a very close relation with Rafael and his brother Fernando. In an interview with BBC, Maradona affirmed,
“My relationship with the guys is excellent. We get together through their songs, through the passion for the colours of our team… then they go and make their mistakes and I do mine, we certainly do not enter into an association of crime, that’s not my style.” 2
In return, Rafael made his testimonial match at the Bombonera unforgettable – ‘The match stopped because we let off fireworks. And Diego became all emotional, he started crying. Then he walked up to where we were and thanked us. That was his surprise. He will never forget it.’3
The counter organisation of Boca’s La Doce is known as Los Borrachos del Tablón aka ’the drunkards of the terrace’ – the hooligan gang of River Plate, Boca’s eternal rival. This gang became the most feared gang of Argentina during the early 2000s and shared similar history of bloodshed like La Doce.
One of the vilest incidents of carnage happened just before the midnight of 7 August 2007, when a River fan named Martin Gonzalo Acro was coming home from his boxing class in Villa Urquiza neighbourhood. To his utter surprise, a dark blue Fiat Uno and a white Renault Express stopped by him, and out came five gunmen from the vehicles. They shot the helpless Gonzalo on the thigh, left him on the ground and then shot him twice in the head to kill him. It was revealed later that the homicide was executed by the infamous ‘Shlenker brothers as part of their power struggle against Adrian Rousseau for the firm. Unfortunately, Gonzalo was a friend of Adrian and had to pay the price.
The Super Clasico has been always branded as one of the fiercest derbies in the world. Fights, riots, suspensions and injuries have become regular occurrences on derby days. The members of the ‘Barras Bravas’ frequently climb through the iron fences, unzipping their pants and urinate on the rival fans. The Monumental, the home stadium of River Plate, is often found roaring with chants hurled towards their eternal rival –
Tell me Boca what happened in Mar del Plata, What you did not have enough gas, You could not keep up, All those fat asses that think they are great, They saw Los Borrachos and ran away.
The tension reached its peak when Boca fans allegedly sprayed an irritant (allegedly pepper spray) on the River players in the tunnel before they came out for the second half at La Bombonera stadium during a Copa Libertadores quarter-final in 2015. ‘I cannot see, I cannot see. I am burning. This is not a war!’, River defender Funes Mori exclaimed in pain.4 The match was abandoned and four River players were hospitalised.
When these two evil forces clash for an ill-fated face off, the history of blood, violence and civil riots rumbles at every corner of Buenos Aires. The most tragic incident of Argentine football history took place on an ill-fated eve of Super Clasico on 23 June 1968, at the Monumental when 71 Boca supporters were crushed to death on the dim-lit stairwell in front of gate no. twelve.
Unlike Hillsborough, the justice for the tragedy was never served. Some think the disaster was executed as an outcome of a conflict between the police and Boca’s Barras Bravas. Alarmingly, nothing has changed after that. The case was closed next year and has not been reopened since.
The legacy of blood and death still continues at its peak. On the fateful day in 2011, when River Plate was relegated for the first time in their 110 years of history after a 1–1 draw with Belgrano, huge riots broke out both inside the Monumental as well as outside. The violence was predicted. More than 2,000 policemen were deployed on duty with water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets. Helicopters hovered over the Monumental during the match. The mayhem broke out after the final whistle and the northern suburb of Nunez transformed to a war zone between police force and Borrachos del Tablón, leaving nearly 100 injured.
So, how do these big gangs function so efficiently? The gangs are mostly divided into three tiers. At the top echelon, are a few leaders who strategise business, plan the attacks, make the deals and engage with the influential people. They essentially rule the organisation through the power of force and astronomical wealth. At the bottom they have their passionate and loyal fan-base that supports the club and their respective Barra Brava in every possible circumstance. They are given free match tickets, beer and drugs, and asked to chant for the club during the game. The middle tier is the most dangerous and violent in nature. These are the people who execute the violence, show muscle power, arm themselves with weapons, drive the mob and often harbour the ambition of leading a Barra Brava. There is a culture in Argentina that dictates the bigger clubs to keep a sense of engagement with the community and neighbourhood. The Barras Bravas are definitely a great option to facilitate this communication as most of the members are recruited from the localities. Other than that, they play a major role in electoral campaigns and are heavily linked with the political parties. Most of the members support their clubs during the weekend games and work for the political parties otherwise.
As an outcome a huge amount of free tickets is being distributed among them. Most of the leaders use those to sell in the black market and earn massive incentives. Another big chunk of the earnings comes through the parking lot ticketing, ‘trapitos’ or informal valets and food outlets in the stadium. They have essentially created a monopoly on every transaction being made in and around their home stadium. Every merchandise that is sold, every stadium tour that is booked or any local event that is organised by the club – a significantly large share goes directly to the house of Barra Brava. According to a report of the New York Times5, one major Barra firm can earn monthly up to 300,000 pesos which is equivalent to about $70,000. Inevitably, where there is black money, there will be crime. The financial exploits have created major rival factions within a gang just like the mafia organisations, victimising the football infrastructure and common people. On 26 November 2014, just two days before the second leg of River’s Copa Sudamericana semi-final at home to Boca Juniors, nearly 100 hooligans of a dissident faction of Los Borrachos del Tablón, armed with sticks and knives, rampaged the coffee bar at Monumental stadium and launched a fierce attack on the ruling gang. The seven-minute operation left three men severely wounded and caused havoc and mayhem.
According to a report of the New York Times5, one major Barra firm can earn monthly up to 300,000 pesos which is equivalent to about $70,000. Inevitably, where there is black money, there will be crime.
‘Where is he? We are going to kill him’, a thug was heard shouting while hitting people inside bar.6 People are up for killing a life and chasing a human like a hunting dog, perhaps on a minor dispute related to selling tickets of the high voltage game. Buenos Aires cultivates her own set of dark history hidden beneath the fairy-tale of Carlos Tevez.
Argentina probably is among the very few nations in the world where the hooligan firms are so heavily involved in the clubs’ activities. They have significantly high degree of influence on a player’s transfer, career, standing in the team and lifestyle. This happens even inside the so called biggest names of world football – Independiente, Boca Juniors, River Plate, San Lorenzo or Huracan. Back in 1993, the then River manager and Argentina’s World Cup winning captain, Daniel Passarella along with three other club executives were attacked by four hooligans armed with sharp knives when the team was resting inside the hotel El Mirador, before the pre-season game against San Lorenzo at Mar del Plata. The assailants were hiding near the bridge that divides the town, disguised as fishermen, and broke into the inn when the training got over.
Miguel Alejandro Sandokan put a knife on the face of ‘El Kaiser’ and yelled, ‘Passarella mother-fucker, puts Comizzo.’7 Sandokan was a famous and notorious leader of Los Borrachos del Tablón and evidently had belonged to the camp of Angel Comizzo, the River shot-stopper who had maintained a huge feud with the manager.
Jose Yudica, one of the finest managers of his generation, was also given similar treatment by the Bicho gang (The Bugs) of Argentinos Juniors in 1992. Yudica was the first Argentine manager to win three national league titles with three different clubs and had previously led Juniors to their solitary Copa Libertadores success back in 1985. The season was not going well for the Juniors; they were languishing at the bottom of the league table. The ugly confrontation with the Barra Brava started when twenty odd hooligans hounded him outside La Paternal after a sweaty training session.
He replied to the mob, ‘I am the manager and you belong in the stands’, and started walking back.8
The situation turned violent within a second. The notorious gang started assaulting the old man who had given them national and international success. Joseph, the young son of the manager who was an assistant, was attacked viciously with kicks and punches. Having no other option, the helpless father pulled out his .22 calibre revolver and fired a shot in the air. Yudica later said that his son was almost killed on that day. That bullet saved their lives that afternoon. The management did not take any action; the goons were never identified. That same night, he resigned and never stepped back on the premises where he had celebrated his glory days.
Hugo Gatti, Boca’s charismatic goalkeeper and one of the finest in their history, was no exception. Gatti was intimidated by the Barra Brava to the extent that he eventually moved out of the club where he had served for more than a decade. It is a fact that ‘El Loco’ was experiencing a nervous time on the pitch making some unforced errors and bloopers that did cost few critical points to the Buenos Aires giants, but the real reason was different. 1987 was an important year for Buenos Aires. A major electoral battle was settled in September for the designation of the Governor of the province of Buenos Aires between President Raul Alfonsin and Peronist Justicialist politician, Antonio Cafiero. Incidentally, Cafiero was a fanatical Boca fan and very close to the Boca President. In 1996, in an interview with La Voz, Cafiero said that the song that excited him the most was: ‘Many times I was in prison / and often cried for you / I want it to Boca / I wear it in the heart.’9 When it was looking like an easy sweep for him, UCR (Union Civica Radical) played the ultimate trick of appointing another fan favourite Gatti as their ambassador. He was spotted campaigning for the presidential candidate in the premises of Bombonera. However, this did not go too well for him. The radical gangs started insulting him.
‘… borom bom bom bom bom … … Go back Gatti, you are a thief…’1°, the galley shouted aloud every time he touched the ball. The scream went louder whenever he did a mistake.
The situation went from bad to worse for him once Cafiero won the election and eventually he had to leave the club the next year. The political parties and the hooligans’ top echelons are so entangled, that every movement of the Barra is controlled by the political leaders. There is very little or nothing that has been done to counter this organised business of crime surrounding the ‘beautiful game’. Authorities mostly ignore the trivial crimes; convicts are soon released on bail or the prosecutions go on for ages. It’s because neither the club authorities nor the statesmen want the organisations to be ceased. The stakes are too high. The Barras Bravas are the most critical component to hold on to power. This is the long-standing problem which nobody actually wants to address. If someone dares to go against them, the outcomes are not pleasant.
When Javier Cantero was elected as president of CA Independiente in December 2011, he took an initiative to put a halt to the finance and support given to the club’s violent ultra-band La Barra del Rojo, led by the legendary Bebote ‘Big Baby’ Alvarez Cantero, and immediately became a target of the hooligans. Independiente’s vice-president, Claudio Keblaitis and members of his family received death threats straightaway. Uncountable protests and slurs had been directed towards Cantero. The situation went out of control when one of the employees was threatened claiming a bomb was about to explode in a nearby school with 1400 students.
‘If they do not return the flags, we will make them fly’, the hooligans were reported to have said.11
Though fortunately the bomb squad could not find any explosive, the state of intimidation remained intact.
However, Franco Nieto was not fortunate enough. He was the former captain of the Rosario based third division club Tiro Federal. On 5 December 2014, they faced their local rival Chacarita Juniors in the town of Aimogasta, in northwest Argentina. The ill-fated Argentine was involved in a brawl that resulted in the game being suspended fifteen minutes from final whistle with a score-line of 3–1 in the favour of Tiro. The referee had shown the red card to eight players for fighting, five of Chacarita and three of Tiro. Soon the violence had transmitted to the stand and took the form of a small civil riot. The 33-year-old was in a hurry to go home. He had his family visiting the game – his beautiful wife and 1-year-old baby. A three-man-gang, possibly possessed by a high dosage of drugs, attacked him in the parking lot. After initial kicking and punching, a brutal strike with a brick on his head proved to be fatal.
And this was not a solitary incident. That very same year no fewer than 14 people had died before the unfortunate incident of Franco Nieto in football-related violence in Argentina. The organisation Salvemos al Futbol (Let’s save football) counted a list of 310 football-related deaths since 1922, out of them 116 deaths taking place in the current century. The exponentially inclined death-toll curve is looming large over the future of Argentine football.
The history of blood and violence has been so deep-rooted in the society and culture of Argentina that they are hard to keep apart. This is a country that carries the unsurmountable memories of the ‘Guerra Sucia’ (Dirty War) where military forces and right-wing state sponsored militants killed thousands of left-wing guerrillas and socialists in the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, it was no surprise that the culture of violence soon got entangled with the other major social identity of the Argentines – football. The politics of ballet-box and chest-thumping had motivated the clubs and neighbourhoods to organise their powerful gangs. Unfortunately, a large section of the people take pride and seek glory in the atrocities and display of power of the Barras Bravas. Being in a society that is victimised by state-sponsored oppression and police atrocities for a long time, the commoners also pursue a victory against the state and police through the riots organised by the hooligans.
The culture of violence has been so glamourised in the past that it has become a demon today. The violence is perpetrated by the people who are deeply involved with the club or political parties. The government or the AFA – none of them had ever treated the situation as an emergency. The lack of political courage and conviction has been always extremely evident.
Do not throw the corpses on our doorstep
One of the members of AFA once even said that, ‘Do not throw the corpses on our doorstep.’12 Yes, the solution was that simple for them. One simple statement had so comically and cynically reflected the current mayhem of Argentine football. Raul Gamez, the president of Velez Sarsfield, in an interview at the club’s El Fortin ground stated his grave concern on the situation and doubted that Argentina would ever be able to eradicate the intimidating world of vandalism.
‘Here the battle is lost,’ the president accepted.’3
We all know that the football ecosystem in Argentina lies on a bed of violence and corruption. The resounding atmosphere and passion of the Super Clasico has been able to cover up to the outside world the actual state of things. Rafael Di Zeo still controls La Doce. He still has his finger on the trigger. Perhaps, somewhere else another bullet is waiting for him. This is an endless tale of terror.
When Rafael stepped into the stadium on that night he knew he had a battle to fight. A battle of power, wealth and bullet. He danced with every goals Boca scored that night. He chanted ‘Oh dale dale Bo’ with 40,000-odd hysteric crowd. The crowd goes fanatic with every goal, every win. They are in a complete state of oblivion about the national crisis their country is in. They are dancing on the beats, celebrating with the fire crackers. The game is long over. The resonating sound of drums is slowly fading away. They are going back home through the colourful alleys of La Caminito leaving behind the corpses of their friends and foes, every time.
1. Grabia, 2007, ‘Soy amigo de Rafa, pero a La Doce la manejo yo’.
2. BBC, 2002, ‘Argentine hooligans revere Maradona’.
4. BBC, 2015, ‘Boca Juniors v River Plate: Copa Libertadores tie abandoned’.
5. Barrionuevo & Newbery, 2011, ‘In Argentina, Violence Is Part of the Soccer Culture’.
6. Castilla, 2014, ‘Otra pelea dentro de la barra brava instaló el terror en el Monumental’.
7. Clarin, 2011, ‘Passarella y Yudica, dos que también se enfrentaron con los barras’.
9. La Voz, 2014, ‘Cafiero, fanático de Boca, reveló que Perón era xeneize’.
10. See, ‘[Retro]  Barra Brava vs Loco Gatti: Communidad Club Atlético Boca Juniors’.
11. The Argentina Independent, 2012, ‘Bomb Threat at a School Near Independiente Football Club’.
12. Wade, 2011, ‘Death and violence scar the Argentine game’.
13. Gowar, 2015, ‘Interview-Soccer-Argentina losing hooliganism battle – Velez chief’.
Life From 12 Yards: Palermo Misses
Penalty. A term, that can ruffle the feathers of even the calmest of beings. A term, that in any walk of life, shocks and triggers signals of doom and punishment for some, and hope or satisfaction for others. Football, is no exception. Goalden Times bring you a series where we look at the more unfortunate events of missed penalties (and their aftermath??). Enjoy the ride with Subhashis Biswas.You can read the other stories of the Copa America series here
Player: Martin Palermo, Argentina Opponent Goalkeeper: Miguel Calero, Colombia Match Venue & Date: Estadio Feliciano Cáceres, Luque, Paraguay, 4th July, 1999, Copa America Group C.
As we have already illustrated in our “missed penalty” series, missing a penalty in a football match makes a heavy dent in the confidence of the player and can demoralize the player with long lasting effect. Now consider this: if this happens three times in a match! Imagine missing three penalties in a single match! Imagine how severe that effect can be on the player’s mind.
In the fifth segment of our missed penalty series, we bring you the story of Martin Palermo,the player who missed three penalties in a single match – against Colombia, in the group stages of Copa America 1999. Martin Palermo is an interesting character, with a career marked with many interesting incidents. But this one would be near the top of any list of football related trivia.
Argentina faced Colombia in the second match of the Group C in 1999 Copa America on 4th of July in Estadio Feliciano Cáceres, Luque, Paraguay. Both the teams had won their inaugural matches. Argentina was going through a transition under the coach Marcelo Bielsa. Key players like Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo were not available, and Martin Palermo along with Killy Gonzalez shared the duty of forward line.
In total five penalties were awarded in that match, and only one was scored. Palermo missed three, Hamilton Ricard of Colombia missed one. Ivan Cordoba of Colombia was the only one who could convert his penalty.
Now let us move on to the penalties that were missed by Palermo. The first penalty was awarded to Argentina as early as the fifth minute. Palermo tried to connect to a cross from the left wing with his head. Alexander Viveros, the Colombian defender tried to be too clever by putting his hand up in the air to defect the ball. Referee caught the infringement and awarded a penalty to Argentina. Palermo himself stepped up to take the penalty. Goalkeeper Miguel Calero stayed in the middle of the goal line, and was jumping a little towards either side from his position. Whenever goalkeepers do this, there is a general tendency to shoot down the middle, in anticipation that the goalkeeper is committed to dive in one direction.
Palermo struck the penalty with his left foot. Goalkeeper Calero, after his initial topsy turvy dances, chose to dive to his left, after an initial step towards the right. This is again a common choice by the keepers, as generally when shooters take a penalty with the left foot, they try to place it to the keeper’s left, i.e. the shooters right.
Palermo probably read the mind of Calero too, and hit an elevated shot placed slightly to the right of the centre. His placement and thinking were correct, but the shot had a little more power than what he would have liked, and it hit the cross-bar and went out. Palermo stepped back, without displaying too much frustration.
Within three minutes, Ivan Cordoba scored for Colombia via his spot-kick. Colombia had another penalty kick awarded to them in the 47th minute, but this time German Burgos, the Argentine keeper, saved Hamilton Ricard’s effort. It is not clear why Ricard, instead of Cordoba, took that penalty. May be they believed in rotation. Argentina did not believe in rotation though. So Martin Palermo again stepped up to take the second penalty that was awarded to Argentina in the 76th minute, with a chance to level the match 1-1. This time also Viveros handled the ball, as Palermo was trying head in a Juan Riquelme cross. Colombians argued with Referee Ubaldo Aquino, but to no avail. Marcelo Bielsa was really excited on the sideline, and apparently pointed to Palermo asking him to take the penalty.
This penalty was actually almost a mirror image of the earlier penalty. Same sort of topsy turvy movement by Calero, but instead of diving to his left, he dove to his right this time. Palermo again chose the right direction. This shot was again elevated, but this time, a little to the left from the centre of the goal. The placement and thinking was correct but the execution again was not perfect.The elevation was a few inches higher than Palermo’s plan and this time the ball went over the cross-bar. Palermo put his hand on head, visibly frustrated this time.
If you read Palermo’s psychology, he almost stuck to the same plan, and managed to outwit the goalkeeper both the times. But in both cases, he was may be a bit too excited and imparted too much power. One basic tactical mistake he made was that, in both cases, he chose to hit the ball with power, when he knew he will shoot above the ground, almost down the middle. Generally when penalties are taken down the middle with elevation, too much power is not good, as there is always a chance that the shot will fly above the cross-bar. We have seen it in the cases of Roberto Baggio and Asamoah Gyan. Both the penalties by Palermo were missed due to the same mistake.
Things that were happening in this match had frustrated the otherwise cool-headed Javier Zanetti, who received the only red card in his Albicelestes career in this match in the 69th minute. If that was not enough, what followed was even worse for Argentina.
Coming back to the match, Edwin Congo and Johnnier Montano scored for Colombia on 79 and 87 minutes to give Colombia a 3-0 lead, and the match was almost over for Argentina. But nevertheless, the Albicelestes were fighting hard, and in the 90th minute, Palermo received a through ball from midfield, and continued his run towards the Colombian penalty box. Probably the urge to make up for the missed penalties was strong in his mind, as Palermo fell down inside the penalty box after a very gentle shoulder push from Cordoba on his back. The Paraguayan referee Aquino was also probably desperate to see Palermo score at least one penalty in the match. He himself was probably feeling let down by the fact that only one penalty was converted among the four awarded by him during the match. Thus he awarded this last penalty and more than Palermo, referee himself probably wished that Palermo will take the third penalty and would convert this time.
Palermo stood outside the box, taking deep breaths, licking his lips probably to calm his nerves. Calero was doing the customary initial topsy turvy movements. Palermo stepped up to take the shot, with his left foot. Now let us pause and try to read into Palermo’s mind at that moment. The previous two shots were down-the-middle, elevated ones that missed the target vertically. So he would be understandably wary of repeating the same routine and would shoot closer to the ground. Now Palermo had to decide which way he would shoot it, left or right. He would get more power with his left foot (yes power was always in his mind whether it is a grounder or above the ground) if he shoots to the left of the goalkeeper, that is to his right. So he decided to shoot to the goalkeeper’s left.
Calero misread the previous two attempts which went over the bar. This time he guessed it correctly. Palermo’s shot was close to the ground, towards the left of the keeper. But Palermo should have placed the shot a little more towards the corner. It seemed Palermo was always wary of placing the ball towards the corner, as he may have been afraid of shooting wide. This penalty was not far from the middle, and Carelo easily saved the shot diving to his left. It was difficult to say who was more frustrated after the penalty, referee Aquino or Palermo himself.
It was difficult to say who was more frustrated after the penalty, referee Aquino or Palermo himself.
Argentina lost the match 0-3, qualified to the next round as group runners up behind Colombia, faced Brazil in quarterfinal, and bowed out of the tournament losing 1-2 to their arch-rivals. If all of Palermo’s penalties would have gone in, Argentina would have avoided Brazil in quarterfinal.
Palermo had a colourful football career. He scored more than 100 goals for Boca Juniors, he once broke his leg celebrating a goal for Villarreal. He came back from exile to score a last second goal against Peru to put Argentina into the 2010 world cup finals, and became the oldest Argentine to score a goal for Argentina when he scored against Greece in the 2010 World Cup. (Incidentally this goal broke the record of Diego Maradona, Argentina’s manager in the 2010 World Cup,who was until then was the oldest Argentine to score in a world cup, also against Greece in 1994). But as long as football and its crazy moments will endure, people will remember Martin “Loco” Palermo for the “alternative hat trick” against Colombia in a dreadful night in Asuncion.
Tik Tact Tales
World Cup 2014 is still fresh in our memory. So what new did we come across? Which teams impressed us with their discipline or attacking flair? And which managers did impress us with their tactical maneuvering? Debojyoti Chakraborty analyzes all these and more here with GT.
With the FIFA 2014 World Cup finally coming to a close, there has been a great deal of debate going on about whether this World Cup was the greatest ever. There were several indications that it was definitely one of the best in post world war era. If on the one hand we had loads of goals (at least in the group stages), plenty of drama and endless emotions, captivating us for more than a month, on the other hand we also witnessed some fascinating tactical battles throughout the campaign. Let us take a look at some tactics that left a lasting impression.
Germany started the competition in 4-3-3 formation with Philipp Lahm, possibly the best right back in the world playing as midfield anchor. Joachim Löw had a fluid front three of Mesut Özil, Mario Götze and Thomas Müller with the licence to roam and interchange at will.
Germany stormed through to the second round but looked slow and susceptible against an attacking opponent. In the round of 16 match against Algeria, the German full backs –Höwedes and Shkodran Mustafi, centre backs in their club teams, started venturing forward but without any substantial impact. It exposed their centre backs and Löw , the mastermind, unleashed Manuel Neuer in an extremely aggressive sweeper keeper role. It was a move which could have backfired but he trusted his keeper who never let him down with 17 perfectly timed clearances outside his penalty box. Germany, however, looked more threatening and settled as Lahm moved to his natural right back role to replace the injured Mustafi, thus paving the way for Sami Khedira in the midfield. The latter added much needed pace in the Die Mannschaft middle third while Bastian Schweinsteiger looked far more comfortable in the deep ball playing role than his captain – the move ultimately elevated Germany to another level but happened more by chance than planning.
Löw made another decisive switch in the next match against France by introducing an out and out striker in Miroslav Klose upfront. He provided a focal point to the German attack, and allowed Müller to start at his usual right hand channel and drift inside. Although Klose had little impact on the game in the attacking third and more precisely, inside the penalty box, he helped push back the French centre backs, and thus freed up the space for German midfielders to maintain the goal threat.
With Khedira getting ruled out during warm up and his replacement Christoph Kramer having a poor game before leaving the field due to an injury , Germany were set back in the final with the shortage of central midfielders. Özil had to fall back to the midfield trio where he was never at ease. Löw though had the final say as his super subs André Schürrle and Götze combined to clinch the title.
Germany had a very peculiar team – from an ultra-modern goalkeeper to the old-fashioned goal poacher. But just like the previous two winners Italy and Spain, Germany also had a variety of attacking threats– they seemed to find a goal scorer from virtually every corner of the field during critical moments. Joachim Löw should be credited for not only winning the World Cup, but also nurturing so many young talents en route.
Alejandro Sabella made a huge tactical error as he started the campaign with a 3-5-2, but he quickly went for damage control at half-time. With Bosnia and Herzegovina using only a lone striker upfront, Sabella spared an extra man from the back to add more solidity and control in the midfield. Lionel Messi definitely enjoyed the hybrid 4-3-3 formation and his own false 9 role.
Sabella drastically changed things around in his next match and moved to a 4-2-4 system against an Iran side expected to sit back and defend for their lives. Iran showed tremendous discipline and robbed Argentina of any space. Once again Argentina failed to impress.
Finally Sabella addressed the core issue, albeit through an injury to front man Sergio Agüero. Ezequiel Lavezzi was introduced and though he did not produce a tangible end product, he was honest in his wide position and provided a proper 4-2-3-1 balance to the team which gave Messi the licence to roam around. Messi, as expected, was heavily marked throughout the World Cup. However, he constantly managed to drag at least two of the opponent midfielders out of position, which was opening up a vast area between the lines for others to drift into. Unfortunately, more so after the injury to Ángel di María, none of his team mates managed to take advantage. All of Argentina’s movements were distressingly linear playing into opposition hands.
Messi dictated much of the tempo for Argentina. His reserved, calculated and sudden burst of speed while attacking meant that Argentina’s tempo changed from the qualifiers, where they preferred breaking quickly. This tactical shift was very critical for La Albiceleste – the more classic eloquent Latin American display with Messi playing an archetypal Argentine #10 devoid of any strong European influence.
Pegged by injuries to key players, Sabella opted for Lavezzi and Enzo Pérez– a central midfielder –on the wings, semi final onwards. Lavezzi, a forward, was naturally more effective venturing forward. It showcased how two makeshift wide players, given virtually similar roles, carried them out quite differently. Especially against Germany in the final, Sabella missed a trick by not asking Lavezzi to stick to the right side taking on an uncomfortable German left back Benedikt Höwedes, a right central defender.
In the finals against Germany, Sabella made an inexplicable change at half time, a switch which tilted the balance of the game in Germany’s favour – in came a half fit Agüero for a very lively Lavezzi and Argentina changed to a midfield diamond. They lost all the width and pace down the flank, and played to the German hands by being extremely narrow in the central areas. Sabella opted for a star player sacrificing the team shape and it cost him the World Cup.
Louis van Gaal deployed three centre backs with a high-risk strategy – high defensive line, ready to keep possession in deep areas in own half and launch direct balls forward bypassing the opponent midfield and defensive lines. There was clear instruction for two outside centre halfs to track down the two most forward players from the opponent team, even if it meant going beyond own midfield line. This paved the way for a high pressing game with an open channel for kick starting quick counter attacks.
This strategy had some loopholes though. Australian midfielders were ready to make runs deep from their own half to exploit the zone vacated by Dutch centre backs high line. But this, in effect, opened up the game more as Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben found themselves one on one against the opponents’ mid fielders. Van Gaal closed down the game by bringing in a pacy winger Memphis Depay to keep the Australian full backs more occupied. A change of formation to 4-3-3 also deprived the Australian front three any open space, resulting in a slower game, where gap in quality eventually won.
One masterstroke by van Gaal was using Dirk Kuyt, a forward by position, as an auxiliary wing back. It allowed the Oranje to transit seamlessly from a three centre back to classical 4-4-2 during different phases of the match. This was pretty apparent in the round of 16 match against Mexico. After a stalemate in the first half where both the teams cancelled each other out in a 3-5-2 set up and were producing a slow drab game, Van Gaal switched Kuyt to a conventional full back and introduced an out an out winger. The team played an immensely attacking 4-2-1-3 formation, though at the cost of a weaker midfield , as the Dutch won the game through wide areas by pushing the opponents’ wing backs even further – rather 3-4-1-2 to very attacking 4-2-1-3.
A very courageous move was already made by substituting Van Persie for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a natural penalty box poacher, perfect for getting on the end of crosses. But the move of the match came during the water break, after which Kuyt moved upfront from his right-back position, with Georginio Wijnaldum covering the right of the pitch. This tactical switch resulted in the late Dutch dominance and a 2-1 comeback win.
The Dutch were good against teams taking the game to them which meant more space to work in counters. But in the quarter final they faced Costa Rica, a mirror image of themselves, albeit with less attacking flair and prowess. It could have produced a stalemate but not with Netherlands involved. Van Gaal moved his wing backs further up to push back the opposition wing-backs, stretched his forwards with Wesley Sneijders’ across the pitch and kept the Costa Rican centre backs occupied to basket their build-up play.
Costa Rica were content at keeping their shape at the back, and hence did not have anything to offer going forward. The Dutch were controlling the game but had a redundant defender in a 3 v 1 at the back, with none of the three centre backs stepping up into midfield to dictate the game. The Oranje, surprisingly took second half of the extra-time to address this issue, but rightfully changed from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-4, with and Huntelaar coming on up front at the expense of Bruno Martins Indi.
Then came the most talked about substitution of this World Cup. within the 119th minute, van Gaal substituted sub goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen with Tim Krul. It was more of a psychological move than anything else : Krul is not a penalty specialist, but the iotasub convinced Costa Rica that he was.
And what an inspired substitution it was! Except for the first kick, Krul came out of his goal every time the striker walked towards the penalty spot to place it, normally walking to one side. Then Krul dived in the opposite direction of his walk. And Krul guessed it right every time, saving two in the process.
Netherlands were brilliant throughout the tournament, with van Gaal relying upon an uncommon, tight man-marking system. He was refreshingly flexible to change his formation each game to match his opposition midfield, with wing backs dropping back to have an overload in defence.
Luiz Felipe Scolari changed the way his three attacking men lined up, a tactic that surprised everyone. Oscar, most effective when operated centrally, was drifted to a wider role on the right. Neymar loves to operate from left but he was effectively used as a support striker to centre forward Fred. Hulk, who started right behind the lone striker Fred during, last year’s Confederations Cup win was shifted to the left wing. This change may be due to Neymar’s increased stocks since last year which prompted Big Phil to offer his star player more time with the ball. But this overhaul complicated things for their most creative player, Oscar, who was visibly not comfortable playing out of position.
There is no denying the fact that nowadays Brazil lacks real skilful, creative, attacking footballers, and Scolari, hence, rightly set up the Seleção as a primarily counter-attacking team. He showed his experience by playing a midfield shuttler in Ramires and sacrificing one of the front men against teams fielding three men at the back. But sometimes he was let down by the inexperience of Neymar, who played more like a second striker than a number 10, making himself vulnerable to marking.
In the annihilation at the hands of Germany, everything that could go wrong for the hosts went wrong. The most perplexing decision was the inclusion of Bernard in the starting XI. There has been questions on whether it was solely because he is a local Belo Horizonte boy, and Scolari, having lost Neymar already, was desperately trying to cash in on his popularity. The whole team performance was bizarre. Brazil were atrociously broken into two sections –six defenders, four attackers, and no midfield link between them. The defence could not pass the ball to the attackers, and the front four could not retain possession much longer to ease the pressure on the back six.
In the second half, Scolari made some changes – Paulinho and Ramires replaced Hulk and Fernandinho, switching to more of a 4-3-3, with Luiz Gustavo behind Ramires and Paulinho. In hindsight, this is probably the team and shape Scolari should have started with.
Chile were one of the most versatile sides in the tournament. Jorge Sampaoli dished out a midfield diamond with plenty of variations. Marcelo Díaz, the holding midfielder would often drop deep making it a three centre back allowing the full backs to operate more like wingbacks. From there, long diagonal switch of play across the width of the field was one of the characteristics of quick Chilean counter attacks. Up front, at top of the diamond, Jorge Valdivia played further up more like a false nine rather than in a number 10 role. Striker duo of Alexis Sánchez and Edurado Vargas regularly drifted wide dragging the opponent centre halves with them and creating space for Valdivia to run into. Sampaoli also proved his worth as a clever tactician by introducing a fast, direct centre forward Jean Beausejour late in matches and switching to more traditional 4-3-3 to exploit tiring defences.
At times, Chile showed they can be reactive and can adapt very quickly. Sampoli fielded 3-4-1-2 against Spain, to replicate the Dutch pressing game against Spain. He was not copying blindly though – Chile were cautious, giving due respect to Spain as often they sat back deep to form a five man defensive line. But they overloaded when attacking and quickly changed play by passing the ball from one flank to another, a highlight of their famous win.
Jose Pékerman, the veteran Argentine coach, was widely expected to field a narrow 4-2-2-2 in the World Cup but was handicapped by last minute injury to star forward Radamel Falcao and shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Star of the campaign was James Rodríguez – not only he dazzled forward but always came deep to collect the ball and play some glorious through balls. Rodríguez was thought to be uncomfortable in a converted winger position but he showed tremendous adaptability and his longitudinal awareness was absolutely brilliant. It also helped that they had two skilful full backs in Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Pablo Armero who besides providing width and making overlapping runs, were comfortable with the ball deep in opponent territory, holding and dribbling past defenders. Colombia displayed tremendous discipline with the back four and the two holding midfielders, and lit the stage with Rodríguez and another trickster in Juan Cuadrado. But they suffered up front as both Jackson Martínez and Teófilo Gutiérrez failed to impress. Had they got a decent striker in the final third to support Rodríguez, Colombia might just have gone all the way.
Costa Rica shocked everyone the most with their honest and disciplined display of tactical football. Jorge Luis Pinto, in his second stint as the national team coach, deployed a back three in a counter attack based system. This was in stark contrast to all other teams in the tournament having a three centre half system – Netherlands, Mexico et al were comfortable with the ball, pressed higher and had a possession based approach. On the other hand, Pinto’s team defended deep and relied on direct counter attacks – not through long balls but refreshingly eye catching speedy passing to wide areas. Sometimes they did press high up but generally they allowed the opponent teams to come at them, get exposed at the back and then break free.
Costa Rica were brilliant at setting up off side traps – their tally of 41 successful traps till the quarter final stages was more than double of the second ranked team (Germany) in this category. It shows how cohesive their defensive unit was. But the same unit struggled to switch to a conventional flat four after going down to ten men against the round of 16 match against Greece. Pinto’s tactical shift to 4-4-1 took a while to get going as the wing backs continued to play very wide instead of playing close to the centre backs. They eventually rectified themselves by playing narrow, helping out the stoppers and leaving the flanks to be taken over by the wingers. They eventually won the match on penalties, but did not have enough tricks up their sleeves to progress further in the competition.
Didier Deschamps succeeded in bringing France out of the 2010 World Cup debacle and spearheaded a well-knit unit. France’s star performer was Mathieu Valbuena who occupied the right-sided position in a three men attack but often drifted inside into pockets of spaces in more central positions. He carried out the double role of a right winger as well as a perfect #10 – on top of a midfield diamond – with aplomb.
But Deschamps struggled to fit in his striker duo of Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud in the starting XI efficiently. First of all, Valbuena had to be shifted in the left wing where his utility was compromised. Then, Giroud could not hold up the ball up front effectively enough, and often he mistimed his runs to create space for others. Benzema also became less effective whenever asked to operate from the left in a 4-3-3 system, did not offer any width at all, and could not go behind the last defender into goal scoring positions. In effect, his narrowness resulted in Valbuena’s diminished return.
But Benzema playing as a wide man was even more problematic due to his minimal defensive contribution. Against less disciplined teams such as Switzerland (at the group stage) this approach was still workable, since Swiss right-back Stephane Lichtsteiner was regularly getting caught in the French half and Benzema could exploit the space in counter-attack. But against more tactically sound sides like Nigeria in the round of 16 match, Efe Ambrose had a more balanced role to carry out. He attacked the French left wing with no one tracking him and combined well with Peter Odemwingie to create problems for Patrice Evra.
Les Blues were playing a lop-sided 4-4-2 and were going nowhere. Deschamps addressed the issue by taking off Giroud, introducing Antoine Griezmann, and shifting Benzema upfront in a classic 4-3-3. This move changed the game – Griezmann’s directness and verticality in possession proved decisive as he linked well with both Benzema and Valbuena. France won courtesy a Paul Pogba header from a corner but ran out of ideas in the quarter final against eventual winner Germany.
Marc Wilmots biggest tactical genius was perhaps the use of his substitutes. In the opener against Algeria he struggled in the first half with a 4-4-1-1 and an inept toothless attack. At the half time, Kevin de Bryune was shifted to a central position, and Belgium now had a potent target man with super sub Marouane Fellaini playing as the second striker. Fellaini did not disappoint and pulled Belgium level with a brilliant header.
Wilmots then put up an example for everyone – he did not hesitate to start with Divock Origi upfront, ahead of his number 1 striker, an underperforming Romelu Lukaku in the knock out stages. But he was not stubborn to prove himself right as he changed things whenever required. The round of 16 match against USA was turning out to be a frustrating one for the Belgian faithful. USA kept on losing the ball frequently and Belgium kept on squandering chances against an impregnable Tim Howard. Wilmots could do nothing much but still he shook things up by introducing a bit of pace by introducing Kevin Mirallas in place of Dries Mertens. In extra-time Lukaku was called off the bench to inject even more pace upfront at the expense of Origi. And Belgium finally got the crucial breakthrough as Lukaku teed up De Bruyne on the break. Ten minutes later the reverse sequence happened and Lukaku’s cameo helped Belgium overcome a stubborn USA side. Belgium created a lot in the match, but a clinical striker made all the difference late in the match.
Wilmots was handicapped with the lack of natural full backs – everyone in his back four was a centre half. So there was no consistent overlapping runs, no overload in the wide area and one cannot succeed at the World Cup without such a basic weapon.
England coach Roy Hodgson excited all of us with four attackers in a 4-2-4 system. But obvious downside of this formation was lack of defensive responsibilities and less protection for full backs which cost them a lot. Also Wayne Rooney’s positioning was an issue – he was shifted constantly during and in between matches from either flanks to the behind the striker position. World Cup was no place to decide the best position for the team’s most influential player.
Paulo Bento used Cristiano Ronaldo more as a second striker and shifted Raul Merieles towards the left to cover for his vacated space. This was effectively a 4-4-2 but with neither forwards tracking back, it was always a lost battle in the central midfield where the opponent always created a 3 on 2 overload.
Greece are one of the most defensive sides the World has ever seen. But they showed their attacking flair too against a 10-man Costa Rica while trailing by a goal. Like any other side, they introduced strikers, moved up the # 10 to play more like a 4-2-4. But they did not simply hit the long balls – instead they pushed the ball wide, stretched the play, forced Costa Rica to work hard, tired them out, and lashed some brilliant crosses into the box. They were patient throughout and finally were able to equalize.
This World Cup saw a return of three centre back formation. But at the end, many of the teams shifted from 3-5-2 to 5-3-2 as the wing backs were instructed to be more responsible defensively. At the end of the day, it was evident that the same system could look very different by the roles carried out by individual players.
Another notable aspect was that how cagy an affair it can become when two sides fielding the same 3-5-2 formation lock horns (Uruguay vs Italy in the group stage, Netherlands vs Costa Rica in the last eight). Strikers become well marked by the insurance of an extra sweeper; there is no free width to be exploited as the wide areas are well guarded by the wing backs creating 1 v 1 all the time. Midfield area becomes too predictable and three CMs cancel each other out.
As we advanced in the tournament, teams got more cautious. Full backs / wing backs were instructed to track their opposite numbers more closely rather than being used as an outlet for attack. This reduced the possibility of having a 2 v 1 overload in the opposition wide areas and the game got more predictable. Same was the scenario in the middle of the pitch – the midfield triangles were formed much lower; sometimes entirely well within own half by the central midfielders and very few ambitious balls were played forward. As a result goal scoring opportunities diminished and so did the goals.
At the end of the day it really comes down to the individual players. The coach can always come up with the best of plans to tackle the opponent. But it depends on the players’ adaptability and discipline if they can execute that plan. And how well individuals can execute the tactics differentiates the winner from the rest of the bunch.
The Blond Arrow Shoots Away
There are footballers. There are great players.There are legends. And then there is one Alfredo di Stefano. Debopam Roy pays tribute to him through Goalden Times.
At a time when everyone is gearing up for clash of the heavyweights in World Cup Semi-finals, the world has lost one of its most illustrious footballers – one who is arguably the best the world of football has ever seen. Alfredo di Stefano, the man whom Real Madrid placed at the top of its numerous legends, has passed away from a heart attack just 4 days after celebrating his 88th birthday. The fact that he passed away after having witnessed his beloved club win its much coveted La Decima of European triumphs, half of which he himself had won in the ‘50s, would have given him a huge satisfaction.
In many ways this is a story of indomitable will and a sense of adventure coupling together to produce the finest and most refined skill one can dream about in any profession. Alfredo Stéfanodi Stéfano Laulhé was born to Alfredo Di Stéfano, a first-generation Italian Argentine, and Eulalia Laulhé Gilmont, an Argentine woman of French and Irish descent on July 4, 1926 in Barracas, a neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. He was from a farming family and had a gruelling upbringing. This probably ensured his physical prowess and stamina was supremely developed even before his footballing skills could bloom.
His footballing apprenticeship was with the amateur club Los Cardales with whom he won the amateur championship at 12. Within three years, he was included in the youth sector of the famed River Plate who were in the midst of their golden “La Maquina” generation. Di Stefano was a rising star and led them to a stunning championship win in 1947 scoring 27 goals himself.
His next footballing stop was in Colombia with the Millonarios. Over four years, he scored 267 goals for them in just 292 games. So much so that he was also included in the Colombian national team for 4 unofficial matches. This would in turn come back to haunt him as FIFA found him ineligible for the 1954 World Cup team of Argentina since he had made those appearances with Colombia. Earlier he had missed the 1950 world cup as Argentina had refused to participate.
His next footballing stop was Spain and this probably was his most glorious phase. But the start was not glorious as there were controversies galore concerning his transfer from Millonarios to Barcelona and finally to Real Madrid. There are many stories about his transfer from Millonarios to Real Madrid – most outrageous among them is how the Spanish football federation had asked Barcelona and Real Madrid to share the player for four seasons – two seasons each. Ultimately sanity prevailed and he was probably the lead Galáctico in the first set of Galácticos that Real Madrid had hired. And what a set it was. Di Stefano was joined by the likes of Ferenc Puskás, Paco Gento, Raymond Kopa, Jose Santamaria, Francisco Gento and Hector Rial. Together they would combine to give Real Madrid the first five European Cups. Di Stefano has the unique achievement of scoring four goals in four consecutive winning finals, and then a hat trick in the fifth. His record of seven goals in European final matches is only matched by his partner Puskás, but even his tally came from only two finals. The last of those finals, where Real Madrid played a 7-3 humdinger with Eintracht Frankfurt is still widely regarded as the best European Cup final ever.
Despite the club level achievements, Di Stefano couldn’t feature in the biggest stage of them all – the World Cup. Having been disqualified from participating for Argentina in 1954, he had acquired Spanish citizenship. Ironically, Spain failed to qualify for the 1958 World Cup and then fate in its unkindest cut, dealt him a muscular injury just before the 1962 competition. He had helped Spain qualify for the finals but himself could not play in that. He retired soon afterward.
For many of us, all that di Stefano embodies is captured in highlight reels and any greatest list compilation but there are some statistics which do not lie, his scoring record for example. His record of 305 goals – in mere 392 matches– for Real Madrid was broken only by Raul. The 49 goals he scored in the European championships in only 58 games stood almost 50 years. His advent in Spanish football meant that Telmo Zarra, the all-time leading scorer in Spanish league ever, did not win another Pichichi Trophy after 1952-53.
The debate between Pele and Maradona seem irrelevant when we hear Pele saying “People talk about the best being Pele or Diego Maradona, but for me the best player ever was Alfredo Di Stefano”. In the same vein, Diego himself would say “I don’t know if I was a better player than Pele but I can say without doubt that Di Stefano was better than Pele.”
In one week’s time we will have a new World Champion. But we have lost one of the champions of the footballing world.
FIFA World Cup With Bollywood Curry
With World Cup just around the corner we re-imagined few of the cult Bollywood movie posters and gave them a football twist in a a humorous, cryptic and minimalist way to wish luck few of the popular nations. This is nothing official but to spice up the month long journey coming ahead. Enjoy – Football in Filmy Attire (in short we call it FIFA).
Argentina – Will He or won’t He be a witness this time?
Brazil – The zeal for beauty
England – For the Lion hearted
France- Head vs heart. Can they overcome the battle within?
Germany – Can they steel a win?
Italy – What’s cooking, Pastafarians?
Netherlands – Thirsting for a win
Spain – Will the bull run continue for the reigning champions?
F Is For Fortitude
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Group F features Lionel Messi led Argentina. But will they not face any challenge in the Group stage? Read on to know more with Indranath Mukherjee
They say that there are no easy games in World Cup, or in any major tournament for that matter. While that may be a tad exaggerated, Group F in FIFA World Cup 2014 is indeed tricky with the unpredictable Argentina, debutant Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria – the exciting Super Eagles – and Iran, with the endangered Asiatic cheetah featuring in their away kits. Readers may note that all the four teams in the group had topped their respective groups in the World Cup qualifiers.
The winner of the group will face the runners-up from a relatively easy Group E but let us wait and watch how things unfold.
From Guillermo Stábile, Luis Monti to Juan Román Riquelme, Lionel Messi – with the plethora of talent that Argentina has, it is fair to say they haven’t played to their potential in over a decade in the FIFA World Cup. It was the genius of Diego Armando Maradona that took a not so great Argentina side to the final in 1990 World Cup when they were beaten 1-0 by the resilient Germans. Since then, Argentina has failed to go past the quarter final stage.
Argentina had a disastrous time in 2010 World Cup followed by 2011 Copa primarily because they didn’t seem to have any game plan. The men in charge, Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista, were both tactically poor. Alejandro Sabella, the current manager, looks more pragmatic and has the knack of grinding out results. La Albiceleste under Sabella had a good run in the qualifiers and finished top of the South American group ahead of Chile and Colombia scoring 35 goals and conceding only 15 in 16 matches. More importantly, Messi has been instrumental in the qualification and was the top scorer of the team with 10 goals. Fellow striker Gonzalo Higuaín scored 9. In Messi, Agüero and Higuaín, Argentina probably have the best front line. Forwards who will not make the first team like Rodrigo Palacio, Ezequiel Lavezzi are hunted by the top European clubs. Carlos Tevez has been in scintillating form with Juventus but expectedly not included in the final squad.
But as fellow author Gino had articulated nicely Attack Wins Games, Defence Wins Titles, Argentina’s defence is at best mediocre. Pablo Zabaleta is probably the best player among the back four but the Manchester City right back has not been the same player for the national team yet. Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernández will probably make up the center back pair and one of José María Basanta and Marcos Rojo will start in the left. The bigger worry for Argentina in the defence is actually the man behind these four. Sergio Romero, Sabella’s first choice goalkeeper has been warming the bench for a while at Monaco. A local strapline in January, “How can Sabella sleep at night?” highlighted the fact that after six weeks on the bench, Mariano Andújar started a game only to concede four goals.
Will the midfield help to hide the weak defence? Very unlikely. Ángel di María is in the form of his life lately with Real Madrid but he adds more to the attack than defence. Javier Mascherano will have to hold the fort if the Albicelestes want to go far in the tournament. Fernando Gago was a key member in Sabella’s midfield but his recent injury is a blow for the team. He has been selected in the final squad and also made an appearance in the starting XI in the friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Lazio’s Lucas Biglia and veteran Maxi Rodriguez will probably be the two main backups for Sabella in the midfield.
At the least, Argentina are expected to top the group. However, the irony is, anything other than winning the title will be considered a failure for Messi and company.
Bosnia as an independent nation will play its first major tournament in Brazil and don’t be surprised if they indulge in their attacking brand of football. Bosnia made it to Brazil by being the UEFA Group G winners, finishing ahead of Greece on goal difference. Just look at their astonishing statistics in the qualifying: 8 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat. They scored 30 goals in those 10 games and conceded only 6.
The Manchester City man Edin Dzeko scored 10 goals in the qualifying stage for Bosnia and he is ably supported in front by the VfB Stuttgart striker Vedad Ibišević. Zvjezdan Misimović is the most capped Bosnian footballer and his partnership with the Roma attacking midfielder Miralem Pjanic adds flamboyance to Bosnia’s attacking football.
Coach Safet Sušić is likely to continue with his team’s attacking flair. In the national team’s official website he has been quoted saying: “We will play the way we have always played because it would be wrong to change our approach now, although we are aware that our style may be a tactical gamble.”
“When you have players like Pjanic, Misimovic, Dzeko and Ibisevic, it would be unfair to the game itself and the fans not to unleash all that talent.”
The Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic and the Leverkusen centre-back Emir Spahić lead the defensive set up and keep it rock solid.
Bosnia played Argentina in a friendly in November 2013 and lost 2 – 0 but when they start their World Cup campaign against them at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on June 15, expect them to be far more competitive. A very strong candidate for making it to the last 16.
Iran is a football loving country but for the Iranian fans none of the previous World Cups has really been a fairy tale. They have not gone past the group stages in any of their three earlier appearances. Iran’s world cup moment of glory was the 2-1 victory against USA in 1998. Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri, Mehdi Mahdavikia were the key players of the golden generation of Iran. The former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz is not that lucky to have got such a generation of gifted footballers, but he has managed his team reasonably well through the qualifying stage.
Iran had a fairly disappointing Asian Cup in 2011 where they were eliminated in the quarter-final after going down to South Korea. World Cup qualifying started really well for them though. With five wins and three draws and an average of nearly three goals per match till Round 3, Iran started struggling in Round 4 where they were grouped with South Korea, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon. They lost twice and drew once in the first five matches and qualification looked uncertain. But they came back to win their matches against Qatar, Lebanon and Korea Republic on the final day and booked their spot for Brazil.
Reza Ghoochannejhad, nicknamed “Gucci”, followed the path of Karim Bagheri to be the second Iranian to join Charlton Athletic in England in January 2014. He scored the winner against South Korea and has been tagged as Iran’s “golden boy” by FIFA. Javad Nekounam, nicknamed “Neku”, is the inspiring leader of the team providing the creative juice from the midfield with support from Andranik Teymourian, Ashkan Dejagah and Masoud Shojaei.
Qualifying from the group stage for the first time in the World Cup may be the right target for Iran this time, but it is not going to be an easy ride for them.
Nigeria had started their journey into the World Cup back in 1994 and they have been drawn with Argentina with unbelievable regularity since then. Even the current captains of the respective teams Lionel Messi and John Obi Mikel have been in a face off thrice in major competitions at different age levels: 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup final, 2008 Beijing Olympic Football final and World Cup 2010 group stage in South Africa. All these results have gone in favour of Argentina, but Nigeria had established themselves as one of the most exciting teams in world football from the very beginning. They topped their group in 1994 which had the tournament’s eventual semi-finalist Bulgaria, Greece and of course Argentina. Rashidi Yekini, Jay-Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi and Nwankwo Kanu became fairly familiar names amongst the football followers across the world. In 1998, coached by the prolific Bora Milutinović, they made it past the group stage again causing a major upset beating Spain 3-2. But in their next three World Cup appearances, they have gone out at the group stage with fairly poor performances.
The current Nigeria team under the coach Stephen Keshi is expected to do much better especially after they won the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Their performance in the qualifying was not earth shattering though. They were drawn in a relatively easy group with Malawi, Kenya and Namibia. With three 1-1 draws with each of the three opponents in the group and three wins they move to final play-off and faced the lowest-ranked team Ethiopia which they negotiated comfortably winning 1-2 away and 2-0 at home.
Victor Nsofor Obinna, now playing in Serie A with A.C. Chievo Verona (on loan from FC Lokomotiv Moscow), has scored 11 goals in 44 games so far for Nigeria but he has not been included in the final squad. So the Nigerian attack will have to depend on the likes of Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa and Emmanuel Emenike. The veteran keeper Vincent Enyeama and the captain John Obi Mikel will orchestrate the defence.
Nigeria starts their campaign in Brazil playing Iran in Curitiba on June 16th. If they get a good start, the next game against Bosnia will probably decide who joins Argentina to the last 16 from group F.
Even with Messi’s recent dip in form, Gago’s injury, Kun’s injury prone season, Argentina is likely to finish at the top of the group. The Bosnia versus Nigeria game will probably decide who else is joining them in the last 16. One huge advantage that the teams from this group will enjoy is that depending on how far they progress in the tournament, they will never have to play going any higher up the country than Brasilia.
Apart from Argentina-Nigeria match, all the other fixtures in the group will be between teams who have never played each other before, apart from a few meaningless friendlies. So be ready for some surprises and keen contests between different traditions and styles.
Millionaires Turned Paupers
You may blame the Mayans. They had predicted something similar. The fifth of the seven key Mayan prophecies talks about how the established world order will change. It also gives a time frame of when the change will be manifested – sometime in 1999 things will start deteriorating. 1999 is also the year, when a special edition of the Argentine sports magazine “El Gráfico” named River Plate as “Champions of the Century”, noting the club’s achievements, especially their (then) 28 Argentine championships against Boca Juniors’ 19 and Independiente’s 13. If one were to plot the course of achievements for the club based in the Belgrano neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, then that would very much be it. Whatever ensued, culminating in relegation in June 2011, looks like a swift and steep curve down.
One can’t stress enough on the significance of River Plate in the history of Argentine and South American football and the society in general. Founded on May 25, 1901, in what is today the neighbourhood of its fiercest rival – Boca Juniors, the club moved to Palermo and then on to Belgrano in the northern part of Buenos Aires in 1923. They earned their nickname of Los Millionarios when in the early 1930s, they paid £23,000 for Bernabé Ferreyra, a quite unheard of sum and a record transfer fee for over 20 years, and most of it was paid in gold. Ferreyra repaid the amount with a scarcely believable 187 goals in 185 matches for River.
A new impetus also came from the social movement whereby, the military rulers as well as the civilian reformers of Argentina focused on the development of character through sports in the 1920-40s. It was seen as a step towards the building of a modern nation. River became the symbol of that with an all conquering team that swept everyone before them. Three league titles in the 1930s were followed by four in the 1940s and five in the 1950s. The 1940s team earned its nickname, La Maquina (the machine), based on their ruthless efficiency in the domestic and international scene. The team even bears comparison to and is seen as one of the earliest precursor to ‘total football’ as propounded by the Ajax and Dutch of 1970s vintage.
River Plate in its 110 years of history has been the most decorated club in the Argentinian domestic front. Much like other fierce rivalries in Europe, where one of the rivals would collect more international trophies only to be outdone in the domestic scene by its fiercest rival (think Liverpool – Manchester United or AC Milan – Juventus), River swept through the domestic scene collecting 33 league titles in its 110 year history. Even though bitter rival, Boca Juniors have the record (jointly owned with Milan) for the maximum international club tournaments. River can point towards their Annus Mirabilis of 1986-87 when they won the domestic title, the Copa Libertadores, the Copa Interamericana and the Copa Intercontinental. Such a clean sweep was quite unprecedented. They almost repeated the same after a decade in 1996, when they once again won the domestic title and the Copa Libertadores. This 1996-97 display by the team led the club to first place in the IFFHS ranking for six consecutive months, the first Argentine club to do so. They are also the only Argentine club ranked as the best World team in a full season (1997–1998). At the turn of the century, the ultimate accolade of “Champions of the Century” was thus conferred on the club. The following year, in a FIFA sponsored vote, River was voted the best Argentine team of the 20th century. Indeed the club has been a conglomerate of champions over its 100 years and one would not attempt to capture the stars that have passed through the El Monumental but fair to say that, in every decade, the best of Argentina have always come from either River or Boca, who together commandeer over 70% of the Argentine public support.
The Decline Years
The last decade has not been kind to River Plate, especially in the latter half. A brief note about the Argentine domestic tournament details may be relevant. Like many Latin American leagues, the Argentina league is divided into 2 halves, the Apertura and the Clausura (literally, the opening and the closure). The winners of each of those halves can claim to have won a league. This departure from a unified single home and away league was undertaken from the 1990-91 season and incidentally River Plate was the last club to win the unified league championship in 1989-90.
With this truncated 2 mini leagues (one home and one away) put into a season, River were doing fine as can be seen from the 12 league titles (Apertura or Clausura) in the next 14 years i.e. till 2004. Since then, only once have they managed to win – the 2008 Clausura. But there has been no shortage of managerial merry-go-rounds. To illustrate the point, Ramon Diaz was the last manager to preside over consecutive seasons, from 1995-1999, arguably the time when River were the team to beat and had won their title as Champion of the Century. Since then there have been 15 (yes 15!) managerial appointments in 12 seasons. None of those managers could string 2 seasons consecutively but there were many re-appointments, and each ended with further misery than the previous one.
Financially too, the fortunes took a nosedive as the club is estimated to have run up a debt of 280 million Argentine pesos ($67.76 million). Part of the reason is how the club let the ultras (Los Borrachos del Tablón – literally “the Drunks in the Stands”) take care of certain financial transactions of the club. A lot of ultras and miscreants took charge of merchandising, and even had a pie from player transfer earnings. They enjoyed huge perks like all expenses paid for away matches and even free tickets. All this was done with José María Aguilar as the club president (2001-09). For these 8 long years, many of the top talents from River were sold off to Europe while filling the gap with players who were owned by 3rd party or by agents. Hence when they moved on, the club didn’t earn much out of it. Some of the money is still unaccounted for and may have been siphoned off. The total mismanagement of funds coupled with power given to the ultras and lack of motivation for players led to a huge decline in the performance. Refer to the table for decline.
Taking 2007 Clausura, which they won; if we consider the mean of the gap that existed between the winner and River over the last 6 tournaments (2008-9 – 2010-11) was close to 18 points, implying a gap of 6 defeats. For a team that had won the 2007 Clausura, that is a steep, sharp and ignominious decline. The most appalling fact being, the team managed to finish last in the league in the 2008 Apertura, right after winning the 2007 Clausura. Once a domestic behemoth, River Plate now stood merely as a middling team, for whom finishing in the top 5 could prove beyond their means in 8 out of 14 attempts since 2004. Certainly this is not the stuff of “Campeon de Campeones”. The Millionaires were on the precipice of bankruptcy. The push would come soon.
The rules of relegation in the Argentine League, needs a bit of discussion before we delve into River’s final ignominy. Back in the 80s when the league was concerned with sudden departure of top talents from the big teams to Europe, they wanted to put in place a system which would help these teams recuperate from sudden loss of form owing to such transfers. So they installed a system of “promedios” (points averaging), whereby a team’s relegation status is determined by working out their points per game average over the last three seasons instead of the overall performance in that particular season. Although this implies that one poorly played season by a newly promoted team could spell doom, on the flip side, it was quite unthinkable that a big team would have 3 consecutive bad seasons spread over 6 league phases.
There is but one more chance provided to teams following the average of 3 seasons. Based on them, the bottom two teams (19th and 20th) are demoted directly to Primera B Nacional. However the 18th and 17th teams go into a 2-legged playoff with the 3rd and 4th placed teams from the Primera B Nacional. With the away goals rule present, the 17th and 18th teams can thus win these matches and remain in the Primera Division.
For the year 2010-11, it came down to these 4 teams – River Plate (17th) with a points average of 1.237, Gimnasia La Plata (18th) with a points average of 1.096, Huracan (19th) with a points average of 1.096 and Quilmes (20th) with a points average of 1.096. Quilmes was relegated directly and Huracan lost in a relegation play-off with Gimnasia as they both had the same average, and thus relegated directly. River and Gimnasia went into a 2-legged play-off with Belgrano and San Martín de San Juan respectively.
River lost the 1st leg 0-2 away and hence needed to win by 3 goals to stay in Primera Division or to win 2-0 and force a tie breaker. When the return leg arrived, River were desperate to win it. Around 60,000 had packed into the El Monumental (government safety limit being 40,000) to watch their favourite team battle for their lives. The match itself started very promisingly as River took the lead in the 6th minute with Mariano Pavone scoring a fine goal. An uneventful 1st half followed by a calamitous 2nd half that sealed their fate. First Belgrano equalized from a defensive shamble by the River defenders and goalkeeper and then Pavone missed a penalty that would have given them a glimmer of hope. The referee, pressed by the rioting of fans, didn’t bother with extra added time for stoppages and finished the match in 90 minutes sharp.
If the match itself was insulting what with such a proud club going into uncharted ignominy, more disgrace was added with the rioting and violence that followed. Violence broke a minute before the match got over. Annoyed fans pelted players with a variety of objects from the stands, and police replied with high-powered fire hoses while some fans climbed fences topped with razor wire.
The clashes left 89 people injured, while over 50 were arrested, according to Argentina’s Federal Police. Fans were sprayed with high-power water hoses – inside and outside the stadium – with police using teargas, rubber bullets and hand-to-hand combat in a futile attempt to control the rioting. As they scattered, rioting fans set fire to vehicles and rubbish bins around the stadium, with many smashing windows and breaking into shops in upscale areas.
The future ahead doesn’t look too rosy. There lies the debt factor, which cannot be helped by the reduced revenues that will be a feature of life in 2nd division. For example, the TV revenue of around $7.5 mn per year would take a nosedive to $855,000 per year as is the standard for Primera B. The sponsorship deals would also be markedly reduced since they hinged on River being a Premier Division team.
The advertising deals, which include sponsors like Adidas, Petrobras and others wouldn’t help much as the money has already been used to pay the debt that had been built up since 2001 under President José María Aguilar. Club legend and World Cup winning captain, Daniel Pasarella became the President in 2009 and it was expected that after 8 years of misdirection, he would lead the club to its former glories. Instead the results have only deteriorated. The steady flux of managers and invasion of the ultras remain.
Post the recent relegation, the reins of the club have been handed over to Mattias Almeyda, who retired this season as a player at River. It is for him to chart a path to the top division at the earliest. President Pasarella has been quoted as saying, “I would be dragged out feet first”, which shows a resolve to restore the team to its rightful position. The manager has been given some new players, all on a free transfer. Some of those names have a River history and are good bargain buys (Christian Nasuti, Alejandro Dominguez, Fernando Cavenaghi), however, some of the talents have left too, notedly Erik Lamela, the crown jewel of the River team, who was sold for about half of what he would have been sold had River not been relegated.
One cannot imagine the South American football scene without a club like River Plate in its midst, as much as one cannot imagine a year without Superclásico in Argentina. A new chapter has been added to Argentine and South American football. One hopes that River would bounce back soon enough to give a happy ending to this chapter.
What’s with Argentina?
A loyal fan’s perspective of Argentine football in the last quarter century
The 1986 World Cup was a memorable event in more ways than one. The tournament was pulled off beautifully, albeit the skepticism surrounding Mexico hosting the tournament following the devastating earthquake. The kind of football on display that year was matchless. Nations like West Germany, Brazil, France, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, England and Uruguay along with the champions, produced superlative football that year. Several players like Zico, Platini, Littbarski, Butragueño, Laudrup (Michael), Scifo, Linekar and Francescoli left a lasting impression ; however one man rose above the rest to attain a ‘God’-ly status.
The following World Cup, four years hence, was a different ball game altogether for Argentina. Although they managed to make it to the final, after much struggle, Andreas Brehme’s penalty made West Germany taste its sweet revenge of 1986. The final game was appropriately described by George Vecsey of The New York Times as, ‘Winning Ugly, Losing Ugly, Just Plain Ugly’. The 1994 World Cup witnessed an unfortunate exit of a great football playing nation. The team had been a tad disoriented post the suspension of their talismanic leader and Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania probably had played their game of the tournament to eliminate Argentina.
The last time Argentina senior team won a title was the 1993 Copa America. It’s been eighteen long years now. Is the team falling back owing to a dearth of talent? Winning 5 FIFA World Youth Championships (now FIFA U-20 World Cup) between 1995 and 2007 and 2 successive Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008 might suggest otherwise. Argentines are dominating
the international club football scene for some years now; however, there seems to be some issues within the national team, right from the selection process to the manner of play on the pitch. Fans back home in Argentina blame it on the Argentine Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona. Grondona had taken
over as the president of AFA following the World Cup triumph in 1978, and the 1986 World Cup win had cemented his position at AFA. Recent allegations against him suggest he is running it as a personal business for the last 15 years or so. He’s got the media and the general people to back him by having the manager include several popular players into the team, without much care for the team strategy. Grondona has plans to re-contest in the forthcoming AFA elections due in October. There was a protest demonstration held on August 2, in front of the AFA offices in Buenos Aires demanding Grondona’s resignation.
One may wonder how far the allegation surrounding Grondona is true. Let’s consider this year’s Copa America. Carlos Tevez was initially not a part of manager Sergio Batista’s plan. In the friendly matches held prior to the Copa, Tevez was left out. Could be because he once refused to play for the national team or could be Batista, having already worked with
many of the players in the current squad in Olympic 2008, didn’t find a specific role for Tevez in the team. However, for the Copa, Tevez was named in the starting line-up in the first 2 games. There is no denying that Tevez is supremely talented and had a great season at Manchester City, albeit the tactical chemistry not being fluid between him and the rest of the players. The allegation here is Tevez being the most popular national team player back in Argentina, Grondona had instructed Batista to include him in the team and in honoring the
In the 1998 World Cup, Argentina’s (and arguably Real Madrid’s as well) then best player was left at home because of his long hair! Everybody demanded Ariel Ortega; he made a mistake, and got all the blame while
the president, the manager sacrificed his original plan and we found a lacklustre team in the first 2 games.
After a few brilliant matches in each tournament, the players pretty much resembled the NBA players from the movie Space Jam, who, devoid of skills after the aliens take away their power, moved about like zombies, lifeless; without any chemistry, cohesion or tactic, they stepped over each other’s feet, out of position, and with no leader in the middle.
One concern, however, has been common since the 1998 World Cup – that of inappropriate selection of players and / or playing them in unsuitable positions. Surprisingly, not only the coaches, but Grondona, the media and the fans, have always demanded certain players to play and more often than not these players have been brought in at the middle of a crisis when the chances of failure have been high. And once that happens, then the media starts blasting the players and as a consequence, they get so emotionally drained that they find it tough to recover.
manager, Daniel Pasarella still had every chance to destroy River Plate by hiring Juan José “J. J.” López.
River Plate’s relegation this year is ample testimony to where Argentine football has reached. AFA has a plan to merge first and second divisions the next 6 months. This apparently is Grondona’s plan to get the votes of the second division clubs. The project is on hold for now and a topic for a separate discussion.
In the 2002 World Cup, manager Marcelo Bielsa left Juan Román Riquelme, Javier Saviola and Santiago Solari, and got 35 year old Claudio Caniggia in the team. Fernando Redondo was ignored once again although he was the player of the match against Brazil at Buenos Aires in 1999 where Argentina won 2-0 under Bielsa. There was Pablo Aimar, who was flourishing at Valencia, having made it to two consecutive UEFA Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 and at the time, acknowledged as one of the most creative players around. Aimar needed the World Cup to cement his status as an Argentine great, but he was benched. Bielsa
got him in when it was too late, in the must win last group stage game against Sweden and put him in the central midfield alongside Ortega, a situation where he was more likely to fail, and he did. In the earlier games against Nigeria and England, he was used merely as a substitute. The same people who had demanded his inclusion later felt that he may not be that good. Aimar was never the same again; in fact he didn’t get a decent opportunity to redeem himself. A player who could have been one of the greatest in his generation was set up for failure by external circumstances, and then hung out to dry. However, Bielsa who had an equal, if not greater responsibility came out with his reputation intact, in spite of not managing to survive the group stages of the tournament.
2006 was complicated. Manager José Pekerman, the man behind the success in the World Youth Championship, looked all set to carry it to the senior level. For some reason, he left Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel at home. Hernán Crespo and Saviola played with great chemistry. Many wanted Tevez and Lionel Messi to start although they were better off as super-subs against tiring oppositions. In the quarter-final against Germany, Tevez started instead of Saviola, as Pekerman gave in to the popular demand. The chemistry between Saviola and Crespo could not be recreated by Tevez. Notwithstanding the issues, Argentina scored early in the second half and looked all set to progress beyond the Quarter Final stage for the first time since 1990. However, the good deed was undone by a momentary lapse of reason by Pekerman. He took off Crespo and Riquelme to bring in Julio Cruz and Esteban
Cambiasso. One may have felt that Argentina is leading and needs to consolidate their defense and justify Cambiasso’s introduction, but with Riquelme’s departure, the team lost its key player, who was holding the team together and channelising the play from midfield. To this date, Argentine fans fail to comprehend Pekerman’s rationale behind Julio Cruz’s introduction, while the likes of Messi and Saviola were made to cool their heels on the bench. Cruz was not even a regular at Inter Milan.
2010 was more like seeing the nation go on a suicide mission; one couldn’t possibly do much to prevent it with someone like Diego Maradona at the helm. Maradona, the magician with the ball, was never quite known for his tactical ability. Zanetti was once again ignored, when he could have been the ideal leader at the pitch, and this was perhaps also the time to have Cambiasso in the team, especially due to what they had achieved at Inter Milan that season. Argentina won all the group games and the 2nd round against Mexico, but the portents were visible with the team being too much dependant on Messi. Predictably, Argentina were badly found wanting against the tactically sound Germans and went out with a whimper.
Messi’s goal scoring statistics for the club and the national team is so in contrast that critics find it easy to put the sole blame on him. Thankfully he is still quite young and a powerhouse of talent. But if the ‘blame it on Leo’ game continues, the young man may find the burden beyond his scope to tackle, and consequently Argentina may lose arguably one of the best players to have touched the ball. The manager needs to ease the pressure and
provide him with more space to play. Apparently, a convenient solution might be to have Messi take over as the leader. There, however, lies a fundamental flaw in such a thought process. Messi to me is not a born leader. Javier Mascherano, the only footballer with 2 Olympic gold medals, is clearly not an ideal leader either. Neither is his performance awe-inspiring nor does he maintain a stable head on his shoulder.
Well, it’s indeed been a difficult couple of decades for Argentina fans. I have spent many a painful night seeing Argentina choking at critical moments – be it in the World Cup, the Copa America or the Confederations Cup since 1993. There were times when my wife could gauge the outcome of an Argentina game from my sleeping posture. It was not until I read Orhan Pamuk that I learnt how severe pain has its way of being manifested. It’s like acid-filled grenades exploding in my veins as I sort through my bundle of fond memories with the way the team may have played in the past; distracting myself, briefly and intermittently, until the same memories would propel me deeper into the void.
I am greatly concerned about this national team’s future. Most people are looking forward to Javier Pastore. The question is, do we really want him to play in such dire conditions? I see 2002 all over again, Pastore is the new Aimar now. If he fails to live up to the expectations of his followers, fans may look out for another target like Erik Lamela.
Alejandro Sabella has been confirmed as the Argentina coach until after the 2014 World Cup finals, contingent on Argentina qualifying for
the tournament. Is he the right man? We would like to hope so. His managerial stint with Estudiantes de La Plata, where he won the 2009 Copa Libertadores, earned him a lot of respect. But he needs to be given time and space which may not be a real possibility with
Grondona and his men running the show.
I am not too sure what might ensue as a consequence to the protest against Grondona. Argentine football needs to revive drastically; else one of the best generations of footballers would be overshadowed by other football playing nations. I’d rather let Grondona, the media and fans take the blame for the current state of affairs. A revamp of the domestic league could perhaps keep more Argentines at home, and help improve the coordination among them and compassion for the country. Argentina national team needs a capable coach who can make the right decisions. With more able leaders, this nation is bound to recover from this abysmal state and relive the golden times.
Indranath Mukherjee follows South American and European football. Apart from Football, Film and Music keep him going. You can follow him on twitter @indranath
A Chaos Theory Experiment on Copa America 2011
Followed by controversies and heartbreaks, the Copa America 2011, looked like an Elephant’s Graveyard with early exits of many a favourable team along with the host nation, and also marked by one of the lowest scoring football events of recent times. We saw one of the best players of this generation being booed by his home fans and arguably the greatest football playing nation of all time making a mockery of their pride with a horrendous penalty shoot out show.
The quarter finals were a recipe for utter chaos. Few could have imagined the kind of semi final line-up we would end up with. One false step in tactical play and you are knocked out. Early exits of big guns put an even bigger question on the team fluidity, formation and cohesion. Squad and tactical choices by the master planners played a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of the matches. Most of the predictions were not meted out. One may comfortably say that the latest edition of Copa America has been no exception to the Chaos Theory.
It has been observed that the presence or absence of a butterfly flapping its wings could lead to creation or absence of a hurricane. In Chaos Theory, this phenomenon is referred to as the Butterfly Effect. In the world of football, I’d say managers and their predispositions to certain tactical choices induce this butterfly effect! This tournament can be considered a fine instance of such an occurrence. Let’s delve into some of the tactical strategies employed by the 8 quarter-finalists, or should we say,
map the butterfly effects behind this Chaos Theory.
Brazil: Poor Finishing Finishes Job
The reigning champions came with their new coach, Mano Menezes following a quarterfinal shock exit at the World Cup. Dunga preferred Brazil to play in a counter attacking style with a solid defensive line and Kaká at the centre of the park for creative excellence. He made the more defensive minded Felipe Melo a game breaker and posed Luís Fabiano as the target man. His defense-oriented strategy garnered a lot of criticism.
Menezes got rid of his predecessor’s strategy and came with a dynamic 4-2-1-3 formation. Brazil’s 4-2-1-3 initially had Dani Alves as the right wing back dropping Maicon, as a result of his flying performance with Barcelona last season. The two central defenders Lúcio and
Thiago Silva played well but André Santos was a surprise selection for left back.The team’s performance was expected to rely mostly on the two midfield pivots – Lucas and Ramires. The Santos sensation, Ganso had a similar role to play like Kaká. He employed Neymar, Pato and Robinho as the three. roaming forwards. It was a striker-less formation, which can be converted to 4-2-3-1 (with Pato upfront) or 4-2-2-2 (putting Robinho a little down) whenever required.
Tactical Analysis: Dani vs. Maicon
Coach Mano Menezes received strong criticism from the pundits during a friendly match against France when he had substituted a forward with a midfielder while trailing 0-1. Menezes’ team had a poor start followed by a goal-less draw against Venezuela and a not-so-impressive 2-2 draw against Paraguay. In these games, Dani Alves started as the first choice right back. But the strategy did not work as per expectations. Alves is the kind of player who can exploit free space off-the-ball. He does the same in Barcelona colours when Lionel Messi cuts inside with a defender. Robinho being more of a wide player, effectively created much traffic on Dani’s path. Menezes’ next match line- up was more sensible when he picked Jádson over Robinho, who plays in a narrower role. Maicon, however, was given a chance in place of the Barcelona full back. Maicon is definitely more comfortable with the ball and more secure defensively than Alves. His inclusion in the team accommodated Robinho in the top half. Maicon did pretty decently when given the chance and made the wing-play better. While Alves, the former Sevilla man attempted 6 crosses from the right with 16%
accuracy, Maicon delivered 17 crosses with nearly 30% accuracy.
What Went Wrong – Poor Finishing et al: Butterfly Effect
The two deep midfielders Lucas and Ramires both sat a little too deep in the park. Though Ramires pushed up more than Lucas, it was not enough to emphasize the attacking potential. As an obvious outcome, the creative midfielder, Ganso lacked support. With an unimpressive record of 154 successful passes and 32 missed, he failed to live up to Brazil’s expectations. As Ganso was barely effective, it was up to Lucas and Ramires to feed the ball forward. As they were sitting deep, playing long balls was the key although not much effective, since the average height of their forward trio was less than 5’10”. Pato had a great first touch, but his second touch spoiled it. His poor conversion of goals to shot ratio let him down, though he managed to score 2 goals. Being a lone target man fed with the long passes, he was not that effective as he ended with making 62 successful passes only. Neymar came in with much expectation after his fantastic season with Santos, decorated with 42 goals. Though he managed to complete 27 dribbles (second highest at the tournament after Lionel Messi) and drew 13 fouls around the box, overall it was a big disappointment. Once again poor accuracy (5 on target out of 13 shots) by him and failure to provide successful crosses from the wing (13 unsuccessful crosses and only 1 successful) kept the left flank barren. Along with these, Andre Santos primarily concentrated on distributing balls (a whopping statistics of 276 passes by a left wing back) rather than using the free spaces created by Neymar on the left, and ended up with only 1 successful cross per match on average. As such, Brazil appeared pretty ordinary before the
opponent goal area. Menezesneeded to boost up their shooting skills as they kept only 46.77% shots on target and alarmingly only 6 shots out of their 22, during the quarter final against Paraguay. The failure to convert chances put massive pressure during the horror penalty shootout show where they managed to miss all of their 4 penalties.
Potential for Future
Brazil might need a few tactical switches to revamp their glory. Perhaps a 4-1-2-3 formation would help improving Ganso’s performance where Ramires should be pushed into a more attacking role. Deploying a dedicated target man might be a key as none of Neymar, Pato or Robinho is a natural target men. It is really hard to attain success with a striker-less formation for National side, but to find a replacement of Ronaldo is even harder. A European exposure for both Neymar and Ganso could do the trick.
Chile: Sensational, but no Cookie
Claudio Borghi had prepared his team from where Marcelo Bielsa had left off. The pool of talent he inherited, supposedly the golden generation of the La Roja, helped in Borghi’s tactical choices.
Bielsa’s Chile was quite brilliant throughout the World Cup qualifier matches, and was a tactical sensation at the South Africa World Cup. He mostly stuck to a super attacking 3-3-1-3 formation where he put one defensive minded midfielder to support the 3 man defensive and one ‘number 10′ behind 3 forwards. Two of his three forwards played far wide to stretch the defensive and also gave freedom to the wide
midfielders to play narrowly. This eventually gave the midfield a diamond shape. Borghi – another Argentinian who managed Colo Colo previously, didn’t tinker much with the formation after taking charge. He relied on the three men defensive line and modified the system to a more midfield heavy 3-5-2. The wide midfielders were given the responsibility to stretch the opponent’s wingbacks while one forward would drop down to strengthen the midfield. Borghi used his two wide midfielders, Jean Beausejour and Mauricio Isla in more wide roles and former Cesena man Luis Jiminez – as the attacking midfielder. Isla provided enough width to make the midfield spacious
which was exploited by the tricky Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez, though a front man, eventually dropped back into the midfield and always provided a numerical edge to his team in the midfield battle. This is an advantage in Borghi’s tactics that he didn’t restrict his team within a single formation. His 3-5-2 often switched to 3-2-3-2
or 3-3-3-1 while defending and 3-1-4-2 or 3-2-4-1(3-6-1) while attacking.
Tactical Analysis: Bielsa vs Borghi
One behavioural difference between the two systems was, Bielsa believing more on direct pressing game with electric pace while Borghi’s team preferred gradual build-up,
more possession and allowed the midfielders to come forward from the deep. The pace of the game was relatively slower. As Borghi tended more towards possession game, he used a double pivot as Artuto Vidal and Gary Medel. Dropping down Sanchez helped them to put an extra man in midfield and hold on to the possession. This transfer market sensation, though not in his best form, was tricky enough to complete 11 dribbles and extracting 20 fouls. Commensurate with his phenomenal success at Udinese as a more central threat from being a winger, Borghi also changed his position in the
national team, from being a wide player during Bielsa days.
Butterfly Effect: Vidal Underutilized?
After an awesome season with the German club, Vidal was pretty much used to play with the double pivot system with a four man defensive line. Though his team-mate, Alexis Sanchez hogged the limelight, Vidal silently lay claim to be one of the most complete midfielders of the past season. During the last season, he had the second best defensive record in Bundesliga (with 4.7 tackles per game and 2.8 interceptions per game). This skilful midfielder also exhibits effective dribbling skills and a vision for long passes. His attacking prowess makes him a complete footballer as he ended the season with 11 assists, second best in the Bundesliga and 1.9 key passes per game. He also rattled up 10 goals. While playing for Chile as a protection of a 3 man defensive, though, he was not given the license to attack and his talents were heavily under-utilized in Borghi’s formation. While he maintained an excellent average of 57.2 passes per game last season, in a more defensive role he only had 45.67 passes per game statistics in the Copa America. Other than this, though the defensive trio of Gonjalo Jara, Waldo Ponce and Pablo Contreras were pretty good in the open play, the tendency to commit a foul around the box proved costly ultimately.
Suicidal Substitution: Borghi, The Criminal
Opponents often exploited the three man defensive play by shooting long balls and turning it into a 3vs3 battle. Committing fouls seemed the only way to gain time for the out-of-position midfielders to fall back. The shock
came from Venezuela as they capitalised on the dead-ball situations perfectly. The decision of replacing Carmona for Valdivia instead of Medel proved to be fatal against Venezuela. As Medel was already on a yellow card and being the single defensive screen before a 3 man defensive, his misdemeanour eventually cost him a marching order.
With this golden generation, Chile will definitely be among the favourites for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Playing Vidal as a free player with license to attack would provide a new dimension to their attack.
Colombia: Group Leaders Derailed
Colombia did not arrive with much of an expectation, but they were the first team to qualify from the group stage after claiming the top spot above the favourites Argentina, but their limp performance against Peru in the quarter finals put forth a lot of questions.
Manager Hernan Dario Gomez used a very popular 4-1-4-1 formation spear-headed by Porto’s talismanic striker Radamel Falcao. After a slow start against Costa Rica, Colombia was excellent against Argentina and Bolivia. Gomez had a very dependable back line led by experienced Milan man Mario Yepes. At the age of 35, he had an excellent tournament and was instrumental for the three consecutive clean sheets in the group matches. It was not that easy for a player like Cristián Zapata on the bench, but the Yepes-Luis Perea pair appeared to be pretty formidable. They did not concede a single goal in the group league matches. Also, the two wing-backs, Juan Zúñiga and Pablo
Armero helped relentlessly in attacking. Gomez employed Gustavo Bolívar as the dedicated defensive minded midfielder.He used a rather flat four man midfield formation against Costa Rica – pressing the young U-23 opposition. This style left gaps between them and Gustavo Bolívar, which could have been exploited extensively by any good attacking side. In order to tackle this issue, from the next match onwards, Gomez tucked his two central midfielders, Fredy Guarín and Abel Aguilar a little deep, to establish the link between defense and attack.
Tactical Analysis: Carlos Sanchez at the heart
Though Gomez started with Bolívar against Costa Rica, despite showcasing a decent performance, he was replaced by Carlos Sanchez for the Argentina game. This strategy was immensely successful as Sanchez was
excellent throughout the crunch game and the rest of the tournament. Guarín was Colombia’s key player in the midfield and essentially the driving force behind their attacks. The Porto man scored 5 goals from 8 games in the UEFA Europa Cup and was keen to score for his national side too. He mostly attempted long rangers with high success rate to keep the opposition goalkeeper busy. Alongside him, Aguilar was also decent in his distribution. The midfielder duo shared an impressive 71.5 average passes per game in aggregate. Yet Sanchez was the most vital man for them in the midfield. He was superb against the undisputed best player of the world, Lionel Messi, and only committed 1 foul on him using all his experiences of French Ligue1. Throughout the tournament he made 16 successful tackles (5.33 per game) which quite reflected his character.
Keeping the Wingers High
Colombia’s main threat came from their flanks, where Dayro Moreno and Adrián Ramos were very active. By constantly running, shooting at the goal, and swapping flanks – they created havoc in the opposition defense. Gomez instructed them to stay up in the field and their strong appearance kept the opposition wingbacks quiet. Against Argentina, Gomez countered Pablo Zabaleta’s running on the right flank by keeping Ramos high up the pitch and forced Argentina to switch play to the left where Zanetti was playing, who is not very comfortable with his wrong foot. Since the wide forwards were not coming down, Aguilar and Guarin were instructed to tuck in centrally while defending to support Sanchez. Falcao’s duty was to move back a little to fill up the void left by their two central midfielders. Essentially Colombia converted to a defensive minded 4-3-3 while defending, and this two-layered defending worked out extremely well to stop the brilliance of Messi.
Seeking Creativity and Keeping Ills
However, in the quarterfinals they lost the game, despite being a better team than Peru. Though they had created more chances than Peru, tactically they were subjugated. In this game, both their central midfielders were man-marked, which made them ineffective in the context of their natural game. Aguilar was never that tricky to break through the marking. Peru allowed Sanchez enough time, but his lack of attacking vision let Gomez down. It’s only when Guarin who, when tried to dribble past his marker, did Colombia look threatening. As a result, the constant pressing was absent from Colombia’s game. With limited creativity in the midfield and in the reserve bench, Gomez failed to extract the best from his team. Incidentally, a penalty miss by Falcao, one of Europe’s finest strikers of the last season, and two deciding errors by their goalkeeper, ended their journey in this edition of Copa.
Future: Central Creativity
Colombia seriously needs a playmaker behind Falcao to improve the situation. The lack of creativity at the centre-of-the-park cost them a lot. While they have a sound defense and a great finisher upfront, a certain amount of creativity in the midfield can lift their game and may find a place at the world cup finals.
Argentina: Of Tactical Blunders, Human Errors
After the World Cup 2010 embarrassment, Sergio Batista took over from Diego Maradona and a fresh start was expected. Argentina was possibly the most interesting team from a
manager’s perspective. A traditional top heavy team decorated with perhaps the world’s current best player – compromised by a weak back four and an inexperienced goalkeeper. The whole world was looking forward to seeing how Batista managed the team, but yet again a shock defeat against Uruguay and an underwhelming performance throughout, forced AFA to sack him.
The main challenge for Batista was to extract the best out of Lionel Messi. With no disrespect, he was a complete failure in the first two matches. He started the tournament with a 4-3-3 formation, keeping Messi at the heart of the forward line. Nicolás Burdisso and Gabriel Milito were the two centre backs. New talent, Marcos Rojo started in the left back position and the ageless Inter Milan figure, Javier Zanetti started on the right. Batista employed 3 defensive midfielders to protect his weak defense at the
cost of a creative midfielder in the midfield. Batista was trying to emulate the Barcelona formation around the brilliance of Messi. But eventually this tactic failed.Batista had to change the formation after two poor performances by his team. He brought Zabaleta back as right full back and switched Zanetti to the left to replace the inept Rojo. This change of tactics gave Argentina a little more of width. And then he re-jigged his formation completely for the do-or-die Costa Rica match. He moved to an attack minded 4-2-3-1 from the previously defensive minded 4-3-3. It must be said that 4-2-3-1 is not the likely name to call that shape. It was actually an extremely fluid top half, to make it 4-2-2-2 or 4-2-1-3, whichever was required.
Tactical Analysis: Messi Drops Deep, Deeper…
Batista’s 4-3-3 with three defensive minded midfielders actually put an immense task for the 3 forwards to beat a 5 man opposition defense (back four + one defensive midfield at least). For the first two games against Bolivia and Colombia respectively, his midfield trio, Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano, Inter’s Esteban Cambiasso and Valencia’s Éver Banega were instructed to sit deep in their half. Mascherano and Banega rarely made forward runs, although Cambiasso was given a little license to attack. Surprisingly among these three, Cambiasso was far less creative than Banega, who though the most creative player was restricted within his own half. As a result, Messi had to move deep into his midfield to get the ball and sometimes even deeper. Though Batista claimed to try to emulate the Barcelona model, in reality it was not happening. In Barcelona, other players play their game to support Messi to the fullest. Whenever Messi receives a ball, he dribbles
past a couple of defenders and either passes the ball to his closest player and expects a return, or switches the ball to the wide forwards like David Villa or Pedro. But for this Argentine side, he was left alone in the midfield (as there were no attacking intents from the 3 defensive midfielders) and the only mode of passing the ball was towards the flank.
Butterfly Effect – A Misplaced Carlos Tevez
Unfortunately, the inability of wing play by the full backs did not leave much option for Messi either, and Tevez not being a natural wide player, his poor off-the-ball positioning made defending easy for opposition teams. In a three man forward line with Messi playing deep, Tevez should be on the far left to stretch the defense, so that Messi can run through or send through passes for midfield runners. Instead, Tevez’s tendency to move into
the centre directly towards the defender, made the formation narrow and easy for opposition to crowd out Messi.
New Formation Worked Well
Batista’s 4-2-3-1 did work pretty well against Costa Rica. Batista brought in three Real Madrid men – Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Fernando Gago, and Atletico Madrid front man Sergei Aguero. As usual, Mascherano sat deep and was given a dedicated game breaker role. Gago played further up and his distribution skills meant that Messi need not always drop deep back for the ball. Di Maria started from a deeper position on left and Aguero started as wide left. The tactical switch was to get rid of the striker-less formation to a formation with an out-an-out striker played by Higuain. Di Maria’s runs helped as he exploited the space left by Aguero who cut inside. And Lionel Messi was playing in the hole as the roaming enganche. His dribbling and passing was suddenly most effective and he had 32 successful dribbles, 3 assists and numerous key passes. This formation was mostly left-centric allowing Zabaleta to run forward from the right, with frequent helps from Messi and Higuain.
What Went Wrong: Batista Was Beaten by Tabarez
Batista started with the same system against Uruguay. The much effective fluid system forced Óscar Tabárez to play rash football and Uruguay ended the day committing 28 fouls. Even after the early sending off of Diego Perez, Batista failed to take advantage of the extra man. Mostly missed chances from Argentine forwards and a goalkeeping clinic by Muslera, were enough to put Argentina out. Batista made another major mistake by substituting
both Di Maria and Aguero with Tevez and Pastore. As a result, Tevez, Pastore and Messi were all trying to play from the middle, with no width left on the far left. One couldn’t possibly expect 120 minutes of overlapping service from the 36 year old Zanetti, that too on the left side.
Future: Messi Is Not Maradona Yet
With the best player of the world leading their attacks, Argentina will always be a great force, however, it’s time they employ a tactically sound manager who can motivate the team in the key clashes. Leo Messi was good with his new role of playmaker but not quite in his Barcelona form, and a zero goal tally says it all. However, excessive dependency on Messi might lead them nowhere.
Venezuela: Tactically Vehement
Venezuela confounded expectations by reaching the semi-final, beating one of the tournament favourites, Chile and subsequently losing out to Paraguay in the tie-breaker and Peru in the 3rd/4th deciding match.
César Farías played his team with a 4-4-2 formation which was often recognizable as 4-2-2-2 form with 2 defensive midfielders sitting deep and 2 wide midfielders playing up. Farías played four-man defense line led by Oswaldo Vizcarrondo. He had an impressive tournament, committing only 4 fouls throughout, and made 9 absolutely vital tackles at the deep defense. Along with this, he proved to be an aerial threat in the opponent’s box in the dead ball situations. Left Back Gabriel Cichero also put a notable performance and for a defender, his distribution
skills were impressive. César had two defensive midfielders, Tomas Rincon and Franklin Lucena, to protect his back four. Both made numerous interceptions and tackles and broke up opposition attacks.Venezuela faced significant issues in breaking the defense as they were always a man short in attack. Juan Arango tried hard to complement this with his long distance shooting – a tally of 16 long shots and 2 goals though isn’t very productive. Other than these, his free kicks were a source of danger, especially against Chile. César kept rotating his front duo, and his creative forward, Giancarlo Maldonado was effective as a traditional number 9.
Tactical Analysis: Don’t Chase the Game
César initially instructed his two central midfielders to chase the game by constant off-
the-ball pressing and closing down opponent midfielders. This didn’t appear to be a safe policy as they were leaving huge spaces behind them in front of the back four. So as the tournament progressed, they were asked to sit deep and wait for the attackers, providing more steel in the defense. This tactic proved successful as heavyweight teams like Brazil and Chile were kept quiet for a significant amount of time.
What Went Wrong: Missing a Classic #10
Venezuela always lacked a creative ‘number 10’ in the hole. César, with his limited resources, tried to switch the game to the right. In the semi-final against Paraguay, he missed his pivots – Rincon, for suspension and Maldonado, for slight injury. Later, deep in the second half, he employed Maldonado and asked him to play from right to make diagonal runs to the centre. His presence brought about a significant change in the momentum of the game, and they looked a far better team during the extra time. Having two defensive midfielders seated deep, reduced the attacking threat. As both of their midfielders were playing wide, there was no creativity from the central position to seek out Maldonado’s runs.
There is hope for La Vinotintos. Their counter attacking football has been praised by many, and although playing with only 10 men, they enjoyed better possession in the semi finals. Had they pursued consistently, they could have ended up playing at the Copa America finals for the first time.
Peru: Counter Attacking At Its Best
Peru was the biggest surprise package of Copa America 2011 as they played way better than usual and secured the third spot. Sergio Markarian took the flag from Jose Del Solar, under whom Peru had in the past, gone through one of their most disastrous pre-world cup campaign when they finished last. Markarian had stated his aim was to lead Peru to the 2014 World Cup after six consecutive failed campaigns. He himself has a World Cup experience, having led the Paraguay national team to the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan-Korea. The performance of the Peruvians in this Copa America definitely shows that this is a team we should keep an eye on; one can expect them to qualify in the tough South American qualifying round.
Starting as underdogs, Markarian mostly concentrated on a defense oriented formation for which he employed 3 midfielders with major defensive duties in front of 4 men back line. His 4-3-3 starting formation eventually turned to a 4-3-2-1 pyramid. Not a traditional pyramid; rather a skewed one as Markarian had a left balanced formation where the single striker was mostly paired with the left wide midfielder. The naturally aggressive Vargas shone in that role.
Tactical Analysis: Defense First, Defense Second, Attack Third
The Peruvian defense was led by Braga’s central defender Alberto Junior Rodríguez. Even after suffering an injury stricken season, he contributed a lot to Braga’s second spot in the Portuguese League and the UEFA Europa League respectively. The 27 year old centre back committed only 4 fouls in the tournament. With numerous interceptions, he managed to make up for the mistakes by inexperienced fellow defenders, Christian Ramos and Walter Vílchez. The 3 defensive midfielders, whom Markarian employed, were pretty comfortable playing long balls to break through quick counter attacks. He relied mostly on Adan Balbín and Rinaldo Cruzado for this, and a little aggressive license offered to Luis Advincula. Balbín, a natural defender, was given the duty of playing the holding role and his success in that role was instrumental in Peru’s rise.
Peru’s primary threat was their three attacking players. William Chiroque and Juan Vargas were given the license of an all-out-attack, and their presence high up the pitch pinned the opposition fullbacks. Chiroque, an experienced player from their domestic league, provided much fluidity to
their counter attacking system with his fast-paced runs and dribbling skills. This 31 year old finished with 17 successful dribbles and most of them were inside the opponent’s half. On the other side, Markarian fitted Fiorentina star Juan Vargas. Last season he was one of the few bright spots for them and he topped the assist chart for the club. His wing-play and link up play with Paolo Guerrero was responsible for the best attacking plays of Peru.
The Guerrero Effect
Paolo Guerrero, the Hamburg striker, was the main spearhead of Markarian’s counter attacking tactics. His admirable physical presence and holding capability provided enough time for Vargas and Chiroque to time their runs and stretch the defense for him. His dribbling ability forced the opposition to man mark him. Thus his movements – down the centre or to the left – always created a hole in the defense – which was suitably exploited by Vargas, who adroitly changed his position. Playing as the lone forward, Guerrero completed 16 successful dribbles and drew 22 fouls on him.
Both Vargas and Guerrero kept shooting from long range and in a combination averaged more than 6 attempts on goal per game with around 50% accuracy. Guerrero marked the performance by being the tournament’s top scorer with 5 goals and the sole hat-trick.
Peru played better than many had expected, and their counter attacking tactics bore fruit. The attack could be deadly, though with a couple of attacking fullbacks. They could also do with a substitute for Guerrero who can fill in ably for him.
Paraguay: Ugly yet Admirable
Since the time of José Luis Chilavert, Paraguay has been a tough nut to crack, and the latest Copa loudly proclaimed the same when they ‘crawled forward’ to the grand finale against Uruguay. That Paraguay played the final after not having won a single game in open play said a lot about their spirit and tactical setup.
Manager Gerardo Martino who guided Paraguay to their first ever World Cup quarter final, achieved success yet again when he took his team to the Copa final. His ‘safety first’ approach may not look great but was the most effective. Paraguay played mostly with a defensive minded 4-4-2 formation. Like most of the Latin American teams, this is a hybrid formation and can be quickly converted to
4-3-3. Off-the-ball, one forward would track back to make it an effective 4-5-1.They had Justo Villar, who was the outstanding player of both the quarters and semis, a back four of Darío Verón on the right, Paulo da Silva and Antolín Alcaraz in the centre and Aureliano Torres on the left. Enrique Vera played in the defensive midfield zone with Marcos Riveros to his left, slightly ahead of him, and Néstor Ortigoza to his right. Marcelo Estigarribia and Nelson Valdez played wide of the main striker Lucas Barrios. Estigarribia was employed in a deeper midfield position on the left. Valdez played in a more forward role making the system turn into a 4-4-2, when Paraguay had the ball. Martino had changed the front three frequently, by switching the position of Barrios and sometimes using former Manchester City man, Roque Santa Cruz as the withdrawn forward.
Tactical Analysis: Narrow Defending
Martino let his team play with a philosophy of narrow defending. His two full backs were playing narrower to have the crowd out the central spaces in front of the goal. They allowed much space in the flanks to draw opponents in the open area, and Paraguay’s wide midfielders did not miss a single opportunity to exploit that open space. Dani Alves was made to crawl in the first match with Brazil, by the tricky Estigarribia.
Though Martino formed his team with prior defensive decorations, Paraguay was never too eager to press. They allowed opponents to play in the midfield and on the flanks.
Often Vera came down to make the back 5, and kept deep-lying Nestor Ortigoza at the middle
of the pitch. Ortigoza had a superb tournament as the playmaker. His ability to dictate the pace of the game had been used magnificently in the narrow formation. He finished with 202 successful passes and 17 successful through passes. Due to his excellent vision and passing ability, he drew at least one opposition midfielder at the middle to close him down, eventually creating free space for others.
What Went Wrong? Direct Defending Cost Them Dear
Though Martino employed a defense-minded strategy, the execution was not at its best. Jamming the goalmouth is a good option when you have a two layered defense with minimal gap. Practically, when Vera came down deep in the defense, Ortigoza and Riveros were not pressing the game. As a result, Brazil and Uruguay both had sufficient space between their midfield and defensive lines, which was heavily exploited to penetrate the defense. Brazil was dreadful in front of the goal and an almost superhuman performance from the goalkeeper, Villar kept Paraguay moving ahead in the race. However, a razor-sharp finishing from Luis Suarez and Diego Forlán showed us the defensive flaws in the Paraguayan model. Beside this, Paraguay tried to employ a heavy traffic in front of the goal which actually made no room for a second cover behind a defender. This was frequently exploited by Suarez in the final, as he dribbled past the defender to get into the open.
Future: Pragmatic in True Sense
It was a sorry state of affairs, but with limited resources, injuries and red cards, this was the most pragmatic form of game Paraguayans could produce. The passion of their fans was also instrumental in keeping their spirit up (Larissa
Riquelme had already declared her desire to “present herself” if the team won). Strange as it is, they still needed to work on their defense. Playing a defensive strategy yet feeling uncomfortable while defending is a poor banner for their model. It appeared that Villar was protecting the defense instead of the other way round.
Uruguay: Tactical Superiority
Following their strong World Cup run, Uruguay led by the evergreen Forlan and guided by ‘The Professor’ Óscar Tabárez, snatched the crown of Copa America 2011 proving that their World Cup success had not been a fluke. After a dull low scoring affair, Uruguay proved themselves stronger than other teams. Success doesn’t usually come by easily and smoothly and it is to Tabarez’ credit that after a poor start and many a hard time, Uruguay managed to place their nation on the path to success.
Uruguay didn’t play with a steady formation throughout. Tabárez kept altering the formation depending on match situations and the opponent’s shape. Mostly he started with a variant of the classic 4-4-2 but didn’t hesitate to switch to 3-3-2-2 with 3 centre backs. Not just the shape, Tabárez kept changing personnel too, depending on the opposition. Other than Diego Godin, who was ill, and their reserve goalkeepers, Tabárez utilised all other squad members. When he played with the 4 man defense, he employed skipper Diego Lugano and Sebastián Coates as the stoppers and Alvero Pereira and Maxi Pereira as the overlapping side-backs. When he moved to the 3 man defense line, he employed 3 centre-backs and achieved the numerical advantage
deep in the defense. He fully utilised the versatility of former Barcelona defender Martin Cáceres, who can play at different positions as a defender. To tackle the strong Argentine attacking threat, he employed Arevalo Rios and Diego Perez as two defensive pivots to protect their back line. His decision of going with 3 forwards was heavily dependent on the availability of in-form Napoli man Edinson Cavani; else he kept faith on his superstar forward pair of Suarez and Forlan as the front duo, where Forlan operated from a little deeper.
Tactical Analysis: Direct Football
Uruguay did not play fancy football like passing in the midfield or building up from the deep. They rather believed in directly placing the ball in the opposition’s half, and then press hard. Suarez was particularly instrumental behind this tactic. His ability to hold the ball and draw attention from the defenders made free space for
Forlan to exploit. He suffered 27 fouls and completed 12 successful dribbles. Diego Forlan on the other hand, was playing behind him more as a playmaker. His excellent vision was instrumental behind a lot of attacks and his pin-point passing also set up many counter attacks. Their defenders sat deep and were drawing opposition midfielders up in the pitch to make free spaces for quick counters and put their forwards in a dangerous 3vs3 situation. The tactic of pressing high up the field worked excellently in the final when they unsettled Paraguay’s key play-maker Nestor Ortigoza, and didn’t allow him to dictate the pace of the game.
Tackling the Perez Red Card
Uruguay mostly consisted of tireless players like Diego Perez, Arevalo Rios or Maxi Pereira. Perez was the heart of these three. After he got sent off during the Argentina match, Tabárez tackled
the numerical disadvantage by installing a narrow diamond shape in the midfield with Forlan at the tip and Rios at the bottom, allowing spaces at the flank. The full-backs didn’t press at the flanks, rather waited deep, allowing their midfielders to fall back and helped in defending.
What Went Wrong: Thin Defending
Uruguay suffered a lot. Inspired by Messi, Argentina exposed a lot of flaws in the system of the Uruguay team. Their high pressing game up on the field left a thin defense on the other side. Quick switch of game play easily exploits the flaw. Apart from that, closing down in the midfield left a huge gap between the midfield and defense lines. A slightly higher line of defense could possibly be a solution, a strategy that Tabárez was not prepared to risk, given that his defenders weren’t pacy enough.
The way Uruguay has been playing under Óscar Tabárez is inspirational. After reaching the semi-final in 2007 Copa America and 2010 World Cup, they are now the emperors of South American football. With the current statistics and form, they may achieve another World Cup glory. The primary concern for Tabárez, however, would be to find an appropriate replacement for Diego Forlan, who will be 35 in 2014. Diego Perez, who had an excellent Copa, will be 34 and the centre-back Lugano will be 33. Tabárez has a versatile pool of talent and the qualifiers will be the stage for experiments.
Is this a trend?
The chaotic imbalance of the recently held Copa raises some issues worthy of discussion. This tournament was not for those who came to watch free flowing football. It was a tournament of tactical formations, of pragmatic formations and approach over Jogo Bonito. Although in the last two editions of the tournament, we witnessed a goal flurry (an average of more than 3 goals per game),
Copa 2011 had barely 2 goals per match (2.07 goals per game).Most of the managers used double pivot system to protect their defense and installed a ‘safety first’ attitude. Other than this, one more topic that begs asking is – what is the preferred model for a national team: possession football or direct approach. In recent times, Barcelona has established their superiority by their possession oriented football game. How effective is that for a national side? The answer is doubtful. The following graph shows the possession %age of the teams in the Copa 2011, where the 4 teams who were eliminated in the Quarter Final, top the list.
Even in the final, Uruguay’s more direct approach with 37% ball possession, overpowered possession game of Paraguay. To draw another comparison with Barcelona, it is not how long you keep the ball but what you do with that. The smarter teams can do without less possession but discipline, organization and spirit must remain top notch.
The Copa America 2011 may have been a dull event in the perspective of goals scored and dearth of free flowing attacking football, it was a tactical lesson on how to combat effectively with limited resources.
Srinwantu Dey is a football student and loves to analyse the game tactically. He can be reached @srinwantudey.