Uruguay was one of the most formidable forces in international football in the early years of last millennium. There was no World Cup then, but Uruguay was hailed as arguably the strongest team around. While the national team was scaling new heights, some interesting developments were taking place with far reaching impact beyond the realms of football. Here is one such story from the 1916 Copa America.
Uruguay entered the 1916 South American championships in Buenos Aires seeking not only redemption, but affirmation. Of course, they were there to avenge the humiliating 4-1 defeat suffered against Argentina at the Revolución de Mayo tournament six years earlier. More importantly, the tournament was an opportunity for Uruguay to measure both their progress as a footballing powerhouse nation and confirm their superiority in America. Such progress was clear in Uruguay’s inclusion of two Black players in their squad, Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín.
Gradín’s appearance at the tournament capped off a meteoric rise for the 18-year-old. As a youngster playing in Barrio Sur, Gradín’s raw talent caught the eye of Peñarol scouts who soon made a move for the then-13-year-old. Promoted to the senior team at 17, Gradín instantly made an impact. His devastating pace and trickery combined with the brilliance of Peñarol legend Jose ‘el Maestro’ Piendibene forged a devastating partnership. In his debut year, Gradín earned his first Uruguay call-up.
The importance of international contests to Uruguayan football was reflected in the team’s preparation for the tournament. Weeks earlier, twenty two of the league’s top players were called up. Divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams, a series of practice matches would ultimately decide the Uruguayan starting XI. While retaining a core of experienced players, the clear standout of the first team was Gradín, who dominated the first two practice matches. While respect was granted towards the veterans, young Gradín was the great hope.
Following a 3-1 loss to the B side, however, uncertainty surrounded Uruguay’s chances. The weak link of the side was Alfredo Zibechi of Montevideo Wanderers, who occupied the position of centre-half. Revolutionised by Scot John Harley, whose short passing and control of tempo complemented and strengthened the Uruguayan dribbling game, the position was arguably the most important in the national team.While he retained the confidence of the selection committee, Zibechi’s performances failed to convince both the public and the press. ‘Above all else, Zibechi is not mature enough to carry out such an important role’ wrote El Día, laying the blame on the centre-half for the failure of the A side.
The solution was found in the opposition. Juan Delgado was already a household name in Uruguayan football, having played for several clubs in Montevideo in addition to a brief stint at Boca Juniors in the first half of 1916. Upon his return from Argentina, Delgado rejected overtures from Peñarol, opting instead to play for Central Football Club of Palermo, a barrio with a significant Afro-Uruguayan presence. Capped at national level in 1913, and among the most experienced in the team, it was a wonder why Delgado had not been first choice.
Playing centre-half for Uruguay B, Delgado’s superiority over Zibechi was clear. While Zibechi couldn’t intercept a single pass, forcing his teammates to leave their positions to support him, Delgado was the opposite. Delgado held his own, leaving star forwards Gradín and Bracchi impotent while saving his side from other dangerous moments. At 21, Zibechi was vastly inferior, lacking the confidence and experience of Delgado. Those present at the ground were unanimous, applauding Delgado’s performance and calling on the selectors to include the Central player in Uruguay’s first team.
The press agreed with the popular call, with the inclusion of Delgado a no-brainer. For ElDía, the Central midfielder was at ‘the peak of his career, and it can be affirmed that none of our players can rival him’. Not only was Delgado unshakable in his defensive responsibilities, he was a threat in attack through his precise passing and organisation of his teammates. The Central player was a natural fit for the role of centre-half. After initial hesitance, the committee gave in to popular pressure and Delgado was given a starting place in the team. With the additions of the explosive Gradín and the ‘popularly consecrated’ Delgado, expectations in Montevideo were high.
Uruguay faced Chile in the tournament opener. From the very first kick off, Delgado repaid those who had called for his inclusion with a timely interception of Chile’s very first play. The centre-half imposed himself on the rest of the game, with Chilean attacks repeatedly broken up by what the Uruguayan press called a ‘formidable adversary, watching their every move’. Delgado was just as effective with the ball at his feet, starting multiple plays that elicited admiration and applause from the crowd. The first half finished 1-0 with a goal to Piendibene.
The second half was all Uruguay, with Gradín the star as they relentlessly attacked their Chilean rivals. Eleven minutes in, the Peñarol forward controlled a Somma cross with ease, putting Uruguay 2-0 ahead with a strong finish. Soon after, Gradín once again received a cross from Somma, coolly heading the ball into the net for Uruguay’s third. Piendibene rounded off a dominant Uruguay performance in typical fashion, dribbling a series of opponents before beating the Chilean keeper with a fierce drive. The game finished 4-0 with Delgado pulling the strings and Gradín starring in attack.
The next day, controversy struck. The Chilean media, lamenting the loss to Uruguay, had ‘discovered’ the cause for such a loss. Indeed, the adverse result was explained by the composition of the Uruguayan team, which had included two ‘African professionals’. Startled by the claims, the president of the Asociación Atlética y de Football de Chile sent a telegram to his country’s delegation in Buenos Aires, demanding a formal complaint if such allegations were true. In response to the furore, the Uruguayan press lashed out, rejecting the Chilean complaints as absurd. Referring to the Chilean officials call for calm, El Día responded mockingly, suggesting ‘perhaps they fear that our ‘African’ players are cannibals, too!’
The reaction from Chile caused indignation among Uruguay’s officials, who demanded an official explanation. The head of the Chilean delegation, deputy Hector Arancibia Laso, immediately backtracked and apologised to the Uruguayans. Accompanying the apology was a letter of congratulations, the Chileans stating their extreme pleasure with the ‘gentlemanly attitude of the Uruguayans, who played the game fairly, winning because of their evident superiority.’ Overwhelmed by the result, but also clearly eager to smooth relations, the Chileans invited Uruguay to a practice game the following day to learn the superior ‘scientific football’ they had recently fallen victim to. The Uruguayans accepted, reciprocating with an invitation of their own to play a friendly game in Montevideo.
Two days after their official encounter, Chile and Uruguay played a practice game, one half of 45 minutes and a second of 30. The game was indeed a friendly, with three Uruguayans, including their captain, playing for the Chilean team. Despite fears that Uruguay’s star forwards would be targeted, the practice was deemed a success. It finished 3-2 to the Uruguayans, with Gradín scoring once again. While their compatriots back home remained in a panic over the scandalous presence of ‘African professionals’, the Chilean players were eager to meet and learn from the superior Afro-Uruguayans.
Gradín and Delgado continued to dominate the Campeonato. Two days after the Chile practice, Uruguay went out and defeated a tough Brazilian side 2-1 after trailing at halftime. Gradín was again the standout, scoring the equaliser in the second half. Interestingly, another Afro-descendant was playing, with one Arthur Friedenreich scoring the opening goal for Brazil. Uruguay would now play Argentina in the tournament decider, needing only a draw to be crowned champions.
In what seems outrageous today, the Uruguayans travelled back to Montevideo the day after the Brazil match for a friendly against Chile in the middle of the tournament. Despite the first team being rested for the game, the entire Uruguayan squad made the trip back together. Present at el Parque Central were Delgado and Gradín, whose attendance drew most of the attention. Gradín, the undisputed star of the tournament, received an emotional ovation from the public, with a group of excited fans lifting him onto their shoulders, carrying him around the stadium.
The Uruguayans returned to Buenos Aires for the decider against the hosts, only to have the match abandoned due to crowd violence. The replay the next day finished goalless, and Uruguay were crowned champions. Uruguay’s Black players again received the plaudits, with Gradín in particular ‘a colossus in every sense of the word’ according to El Dia, undoubtedly ‘the best element of the forward quintet’ with his great runs and powerful shots on goal.
Uruguayans are proud that they were among the first to include black players in their football teams. Their inclusion was a reflection of Uruguay’s policies of social justice pushed through under the influence of their president Jose Batlle y Ordoñez. Batlle strongly believed that the ‘masses’ deserved to be included in the national story, and football played a fundamental role. The inclusion of Delgado and Gradín was yet another celebration of the progressive, democratic nature of Uruguay, a country exceptional in both its football and its laws.
Afro-Uruguayan achievements in football, however, didn’t reflect their own place in society. By promoting the inclusion of the ‘masses’ through football, the state merely obscured the issue of race. The fact that Gradín was nicknamed ‘the black man with the white soul’ shows the extent to which Afro-Uruguayans were absorbed into the national story of a homogeneous, white Uruguay. Stripped of their blackness, Afro-Uruguayans could forget the everyday cultural racism that had continuously left them on the margins of society. Despite starring above all on the football pitch, Afro-Uruguayan footballers maintained the roles of servants and entertainers, rather than citizens.
Although they were confined to the accepted space of the sports field, Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín challenged racial ideas that had kept them in their place. The two resisted the confining nature of the pitch to show their true qualities. Delgado exemplified the intelligence, leadership and maturity needed for the important role of centre-half. Soon after the tournament he moved to Peñarol, taking over from John Harley and making the position his own. He joined star teammate Gradín whose skill, explosiveness and efficiency won championships, gold medals and the imagination of football lovers. Uruguay’s black stars were not only entertainers, but hard workers, who could reach the pinnacle on their own merit..
The article was first published on author’s personal blog. Please bookmark the website for great stories on Uruguayan football.
Guillermo Stábile – The Forgotten Entrenador of Latin America
Guillermo Stábile is often considered to be one of the greatest Argentine footballers and the true hero of the first ever World Cup. However, a fact that has often been overlooked is that he won six South American Championship titles as a manager for Argentina. Srinwantu Dey takes us back to the days before the inception of modern football in Argentina and examines the achievements of the greatest manager in the history of Copa America. You can read the other stories of the Copa America series here.
Known as the “Infiltrator” for his daunting runs piercing the defence, Guillermo Stábile quite justifiably etched his name in the history of football by his heroics in the first ever World Cup. Though he never played for his country after that solitary World Cup outing, he had established his cult status by scoring a hat-trick on debut and being the top scorer of the tournament. However, his aptitude went much beyond his playing career. His managerial profile is fascinating, to say the least—with six South American Championship crowns under his belt (The Copa America was known as the South American Football Championship or the Campeonato Sudamericano de Football before 1975).
The root of his managerial experience goes back to 1931, when he moved to Italy to play for Genova (now Genoa C.F.C.). After an injury he had to co-manage the team alongside “Luigin” Burlando—the then Genova manager who previously represented Italy in both football and water polo. His career in Italy was a fascinating tale of rise and fall. His debut with Genova came with a marvellous hat-trick, that too against the league leader Bologna, which gave him an immediate cult status. Benito Mussolini himself was willing to include him in the Italian team that played in the 1934 World Cup. Unfortunately, two severe injuries in 1931 (he fractured his fibula after colliding with keeper Giuseppe Rapetti) and 1933 (this time he broke his tibia following a clash with Fiorentina Galluzzi)—both in his right leg—diminished his playing career and resulted in unsuccessful seasons in Italy. Later, he moved to Red Star Paris (a club funded by Jules Rimet; and according to some sources Jules Rimet himself gave him the offer) as a player-manager, where he learnt various aspects of managerial practices. Stábile,dubbed “The new idol of Paris” by the local media, led his team to a prestigious ninth position in the 1936–37 season as the player-manager. However, he received the agony of relegation in the very next season. This failure, though, made Stábile even stronger. During the 1938–39 season, his team performed remarkably well to win the Ligue 2 and was promoted back to the Ligue 1. Stábile ended his tenure in Europe on a high note and moved back to Buenos Aires with considerable European experience before the World War broke out in the European mainland.
Guillermo Stábile took charge of Argentina in 1939 from Ángel Fernández Roca, and continued his tenure for the next 19 years. He set a record by managing the Albicelestes for 123 official matches and winning 83 times. He tasted the first flavour of grand success when Argentina travelled to Chile in 1941 for the Campeonato Sudamericano de Football(the precursor of Copa America). Argentina defeated both Uruguay and the host nation Chile in their road to glory. Atlético Tigre’s striker Juan Andrés Marvezzi scored five goals against Ecuador and became top scorer of the tournament. Stábile’s next campaign, 1942 South American Championship, was not much of a success as they lost 1-0 to Uruguay,the host nation. This was despite their hard-earned win against Paraguay and Brazil, and their crushing 12-0 victory over Ecuador, which still stands as the biggest-ever win in the history of Copa America. One of the greatest players of the generation, José Manuel Moreno, scored five goals in that match and became the tournament’s top scorer. Francisco Varallo, the last surviving member of the 1930 World Cup final, had this to say in an interview about him: “People now say that they’ve seen Maradona, but I’ve seen Moreno, from River’s La Máquina, and he comes first. He was amazing, the best player I’ve seen, the one I admired the most.” The left-footed poet helped Stábile win three South American titles.
“People now say that they’ve seen Maradona, but I’ve seen Moreno, from River’s La Máquina, and he comes first. He was amazing, the best player I’ve seen, the one I admired the most.”
It was the new beginning of an era for Argentine football. After World War II broke out in Europe, Argentina’s football started taking a turn for the better. When the beautiful game ceased to be played in Europe and Asia, Latin America truly showed its colours. Stábile was given the charge of the national team in the same year that Germany invaded Poland (an event that set off the World War II). His first Copa triumph came in the year that Pearl Harbour was attacked. Coincidentally, 1941 remains the most successful year for River Plate and marks the inception of “La Máquina”—arguably the best forward line to decorate Argentina’s football. The dynamic forward line—consisting of Juan Carlos Muñoz, José Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera, ÁngelLabruna, and Félix Loustau—gave River Plate four Primera División Championships in six years. Stábile employed this highly fluid and attacking band as the core of his national team to achieve even greater success. Argentina was crowned champions consecutively three times in 1945, 1946, and 1947 under Stábile’s management—a record that still remains untouched after 99 years of Copa America. During this historic triple winning campaign,Stábile remained undefeated and his attacking unit scored 67 goals in 18 games. Juan Carlos Muñoz and Félix Loustau were truly instrumental behind Argentina’s 1945 triumph. “El Charro” Moreno also received the best player award in the team’s 1947 conquest after another fulcrum of the team, ‘El Maestro’Pedernera won the crown in the previous edition.
1947 South American Championship also glittered with the global appearance of another legend—Alfredo Di Stéfano. This was the only time that the “Blond Arrow” appeared in Albiceleste colours, and he scored six goals in an equal number of games in the competition. Though the 1940s Argentine side was a truly intimidating force, and the highly efficient force of “La Máquina” was at the heart of them, Guillermo Stábile never had an easy life. José Soriano, the Peruvian goalkeeper of the great River Plate side, revealed in an interview that personalities like Pederson, Labruna and others didn’t have a good relation with Stábile. During a friendly against Racing Club (the club that was managed by Stábile simultaneously with the national side), they even decided to play to hassle Stábile. As a result,Racing barely touched the ball in the first 20 minutes and eventually handed a 4-0 defeat. Handling such superstars was never an easy job. However, for the national side, Guillermo Stábile never let it loose and his wisdom always prevailed. The joker of his pack was Norberto “Tucho” Mendez, who smashed 17 goals and earned a Golden Boot and two Silver Boots respectively in those three championships from 1945 to 1947. The devilish dribbler from the Huracán was probably carrying Guillermo Stábile’s own legacy (Stábile himself was a cult figure at Huracán in the 1920s). Tucho never disappointed him. Stábile took the risk of introducing young Tucho to the world and gradually ratified him for the national squad in 1945. Replacing Vicente de la Mata, another Independiente legend who had already scored two goals in two games against Bolivia and Ecuador in the cup, was never easy. Tucho replaced him in the 62nd minute against Ecuador but couldn’t fire enough to catch attention. In the next game against Colombia, Stábile included him in the starting eleven—replacing the veteran star. This time, Tucho grabbed the opportunity. “Tucho” Mendez scored two goals in Argentina’s 9-1 drubbing of Colombia, and went on to score a blizzard-like hat-trick against Brazil, including a 35-yard thunder strike. His performance in the Copa became part of the folklore of Argentine football, and he became one of Guillermo Stábile’s most dependable “assassins”.
“Tucho” Mendez scored two goals in Argentina’s 9-1 drubbing of Colombia, and went on to score a blizzard-like hat-trick against Brazil, including a 35-yard thunder strike. His performance in the Copa became part of the folklore of Argentine football, and he became one of Guillermo Stábile’s most dependable “assassins”.
Stábile’s partnership with Norberto Mendez was not limited to the Albiceleste colours only; they worked together again during his managerial tenure with Racing Club, along with other menacing names like Llamil Simes, Ezra Sued and “El Atómico” Mario Boyé. Stábile won three consecutive Primera División Championships between 1949 and 1951 and made Racing the first ever “tricampeonato” in the professional era of Argentine football. Tucho (along with Alfredo Di Stefano and Mario Boye—all three were managed by Guillermo at some point of time in their respective careers) was immortalized in the movie Con los mismoscolores which was directed by Carlos Torres Rios. The script was written by famous journalist Borocotó (who actually coined the term “La Máquina”). Norberto Méndez still remains the greatest goal scorer of Copa America’s history, and introducing him to the grand platform was one of Stábile’s biggest contributions to Argentine football. His continuous work with club teams, along with his national job, made him stay connected to the huge talent pool that Argentina had in that era.
The Devil with the Angels
Guillermo Stábile was probably one of the few great managers who had the opportunity to work with two of the greatest generations of footballers. During the 1940s, his operation with the core of “La Máquina” crafted an illustrious history. In the 1950s he managed another dream team known as “Los Carasucias” or “Angels with Dirty Faces”—a team composed of the lethal “Death Trio” of Antonio Angelillo, Omar Sívori, and Humberto Maschio, with help from Omar Corbatta and Oscar Cruz. Before this sublime team was developed, Argentina also won the 1955 tournament in Chile with the help of an outstanding show from their Independiente striker Rodolfo Micheli, who smashed eight goals to claim the Golden Boot. Stábile developed this 1955 team using the entire attack line of Independiente—Mono Bonelli, Rodolfo Micheli, Carlos Cecconato, Ernesto Grillo, and Osvaldo Cruz. He even called up 37-year-old veteran Ángel Labruna[i] to guide the team, who scored three goals in the campaign. After eight years of absence, the neo-Argentine team of Stábile returned to the South American championship, winning the tournament undefeated. 1956 was not a successful campaign for the Albicelestes, where they were not only finishedthird, but also suffered a defeat against Brazil due to a late strike from Corinthians legend Luizinho. It was the first time since 1922 that Argentina had been defeated by Brazil in the tournament. It was also Stábile’s first taste of defeat since 1945, after a record streak of 26 wins in the South American Championship. From this year onwards, Latin American competitions started becoming very tough. Uruguay was still a heavyweight, Brazil was coming back strongly from the debris of “Maracanaço”, and Chile was playing some inspirational football led by their spearhead Enrique Hormazábal. “The Infiltrator” had to retort strongly, and he did. If 1955 was clinical, then 1957 was lethal, with ”Los Carasucias” in the armoury. Argentina scored eight goals against Colombia, three against Ecuador, four against Uruguay, and six against Chile before facing a formidable Brazilian team led by a certain Didi who had already scored eight goals in the tournament. Stábile deployed the River Plate medio Nestor Rossi to mark Didi in order to annul his effect, which turned out to be a great strategic success. On the other side, the trickery of the “Death Trio” dominated the Brazilian defence and made them look ridiculous. Angelillo, Maschio, and Cruz—all of them found the net and destroyed Brazil 3-0 to another Copa America glory.
The Fall of La Nuestra
The dream team of 1950s was dissolved soon as AFA couldn’t prevent the migration of Maschio, Angelillo, and Sívori to Italy. Hence,Stábile had to go to Sweden for his first World Cup venture as manager in 1958 without his best forwards. This was Argentina’s first appearance in the World Cup after 24 years of hiatus. Surprisingly enough, Guillermo’s solitary World Cup campaign faced an abrupt end. Argentina had already been given a reality check by West Germany through a 3-1 drubbing. Even then, they needed only a draw to progress against a Czech side yet to win in the competition. On the D-day, they were humbled by Czechoslovakia (6-1) and knocked out in the first round. The poor performance was known as “El desastre de Suecia” (The Sweden disaster). Stábile’s team couldn’t cope up with European power play and speed. He faced strong criticism both from media and his own team members, leading to a halt in his managerial career after the World Cup. Though he returned later in 1960 for a small spell and won the Pan American Games for Argentina, his glittering career had started to end with the shocking World Cup exit. Many pundits think that Argentina might have dominated world football in this era with their pool of talents, but unfortunately the second World War and certain incorrect decisions by AFA prevented that from happening.Furthermore, their lack of knowledge of European football did cost Stábile heavily. However, despite the only failed World Cup venture, Argentina quite significantly dominated South American football for almost two decades and Guillermo Stábile definitely deserves his due credit. Historian John Presta once claimed that “he was a romantic who knew nothing of tactics only chose the best and put them to play”. After his departure, Argentina introduced a complete renovation of their artistic style of game (that had been prevailing since the 1930s), replacing it with a pragmatic and competitive approach. Perhaps Guillermo Stábile’s greatest impact on the game was that he was the last of the greats who dominated the romantic culture of Argentine football—”la nuestra”. After his departure in 1960, Argentina was able to win Copa America only two times (1991 and 1993 under Alfio Basile). Stábile will always be known as one of the grandest legends of Copa America with his six Copa titles—a feat that appears to be untouchable.
Labruna still holds the crown of record goal-scorer in the Super clásico history (16).
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.
The Year That Was – When Romance Returned to Football
As the football season resumes in earnest again, Debopam Roy takes you through the year that just went by – a year when romance returned to football. So grab some popcorn and read on
Year 2011 has been one of romance and glory for football. We witnessed celebrated victories of AC Milan in Serie A (ending a five year dominance of rivals Inter), of Lille in the French Ligue 1 (after a 56-year wait), of Borussia Dortmund in Germany (after a decade) of Uruguay in the Copa America (their 15th win overall, but one that came after 15 years). But the one thing that has been a permanent fixture is the dominance of Barcelona in the Spanish and international club scene. A Jose Mourinho-inspired Real managed to prise Copa del Rey away in April but otherwise the blaugrana have been ruling the roost pretty well – that Copa del Rey loss being the only blemish in all the competitions they participated in. The peak probably came when Barcelona ruthlessly exposed the shortcomings of a Manchester United club, which had attained its holy grail of 19 league championships, overtaking Liverpool’s long standing record. The Red Devils would then reach dizzy heights including THAT 8-2 but would also see the troughs of 6-1 shellacking at home in the derby and end up without Champions League knockout stage qualification for only the third time in the history of the Champions League. The city of Manchester was united in that disappointment as Manchester City too bowed out of Europe on the same day but 2011 was a seminal year otherwise for them, and City won their first ever title in close to 40 years by winning the FA Cup. They followed that up with a solid showing in the Premier League, which has seen them march past most of their opponents for much of the 2011-12 season. The year had many such vignettes and we try to capture some of them here.
Return of the Prodigal Son
Honourable Mention II: Barcelona finally managed to sign Cesc Fabregas after …well, since the day he was let go. A couple of years of ‘will he, won’t he’ and the prank Barcelona jersey put on him by Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta during the 2010 World Cup celebrations, Fabregas finally made the jump in 2011, after seven years with Arsenal and has proved that it was much more than a bench role, by scoring nine times in thirteen games, for the Catalan giants.
Honourable Mention I: Twice FIFA World Player of the Year, feted for his skills in leading Barcelona to their first Champions League win in 15 years, Ronaldinho was supposedly dumped for a pre-retirement jaunt by Milan, at the beginning of 2011. He was back in Brazil playing for Flamengo and with 21 goals and eight assists in the 52 matches thereafter, he had made up for lost time. He inspired the team to the Taça Guanabara, Taça Rio and Campeonato Carioca and had worked his way into the Brazilian team. This was no mean feat, as he had been ostracised from the national team since 2008.
And the 2011 “Return of the Prodigal Son” is Kenny Dalglish aka King Kenny.
Back in the club of his greatest adventure and at a time when they were looking at the real spectre of relegation dogfight, King Kenny rallied Liverpool to a sixth place finish. On another day that would have been sufficient for European action but with Fulham, Stoke City and Birmingham City all qualifying from either cup competitions or fair play leagues, Liverpool endured their first season out of Europe in over a decade. Still Kenny Dalglish deserves praise for rallying around a team of misfiring, disjointed players who had been in decline for some time.
The Oil League
Honourable Mention II: Anzhi Makhachkala is owned by Suleyman Kerimov, a man listed as #118 on the Forbes list of the World’s Billionaires. Anzhi sprung the most unlikely coup by luring Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan for €28 mn and in the process making him the richest salaried football player (or even athlete if you believe some reports) at €20.5 mn. Anzhi though just about managed to qualify for second stage in the revamped Russian Premier League. This second stage involves the top eight teams from the regular season, which has 30 matches home and away and plays another double-legged league. Anzhi finished eighth to qualify for this but doesn’t look like winning the championship anytime soon.
Honourable Mention I: Malaga CF was reportedly bought for €36mn by Sheikh Al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal family. Unlike the other oil rich clubs, Malaga has been looking at older marquee players rather than buying top notch players for astronomical fees. Hence players like Julio Baptista, Martin Demichelis, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen have found favour. The managerial reins are with Manuel Pellegrini who had taken over the club while being in the relegation zone and led them to an 11th place finish. The 2011-12 season has been even better so far with Malaga sitting in sixth place and in a La Liga sharply polarised between the top two and the rest of the eighteen teams, stands a bright chance to qualify for Europe next year.
But the Oil League’s top dogs have been the cousins of the Qatari Royal family who controlled Paris St.Germain (PSG) and Manchester City. They spent €86 mn and €93 mn in the summer transfer window. This money can be considered well spent though, as apart from buying some of the biggest names of world football – Sergio Aguero, Javier Pastore, Samir Nasri – both the teams managed to finish 2011 at the top of their leagues. There was continental disappointment though as PSG crashed out of Europa League and City crashed out of Champions League.
Underdog Story of the Year
Honourable Mention II: The 2011 Copa America was supposed to be the crowning glory for an Argentinian team led by Leo Messi. Hosting the tournament with Messi, widely recognized as the best player in the planet and comparisons with all time greats a common occurrence; it was almost granted that Messi would lead the hugely talented Argentine attacking line to the title. The challenge was supposed to come from a Brazilian national team, which boasted new stars on the block – Neymar and Ganso. What transpired instead was elimination at the quarter final stage and it was Uruguay continuing the resurgence under Oscar Tabarez. The semi-final appearance that Uruguay had managed in the 2010 World Cup was not a fluke was reiterated once more as Uruguay defeated Argentina on its way to a title, which made them the team with the highest number of Copa titles and also their first title in 15 years. A new generation has come up in the national team embodied by Edinson Cavani and this team is primed for even more glories.
Honourable Mention I: To properly understand what Apeol FC has managed, one needs to maybe look at what it means for the country’s European co-efficients. After the 2010-11 season, Cyprus lay at the 20th position in the European coefficient rankings but six months of 2011-12 has seen them rising to 16th, over teams like Czech Republic and Croatia among others. A major part of this dramatic rise is owing to the exploits of Apoel F.C. in Europe. Rank outsiders and in only their second foray in the marquee league, Apoel stunned all to top their group, which contained Porto, Shakhtar and Zenit. In the process, they confined last season’s Europa champions, Porto out of the Champions league. This achievement becomes even more creditable when you consider that Apoel had to overcome three opponents in the qualifying tournament just to get into the Champions League group stages. A second round match against Lyon will not daunt them and Cyprus may look out for a further boost to their rankings.
The French Ligue 1 has been dominated in the 21st century by Lyon and finally Bordeaux has managed to break that stranglehold. However, little Lille stunned everyone to win both the league and the Coupe de France in 2011 scoring a league-leading 72 goals and winning the league with rounds to spare. Lille have managed to do it with a string of homegrown players, the leader of that pack being Eden Hazard and to this mix, players like Moussa Sow and Rio Mavuba have been added. Sow especially was hugely impressive scoring 25 goals including three hat-tricks, the final of which came on the last day of the season. Sow has carried on that form into the 2011-12 season as well as leading the scoring charts for this richly talented Lille side. The oil money of PSG (read above) notwithstanding, Lille would be fighting for further glory this year, and another domestic double is not out of reach.
Forget the fact that he was ridiculed as a fashion accessory and on his way to retirement when he left Real Madrid for the lucrative confines of Major League Soccer; David Beckham is honest and diligentin his efforts. It might have taken him four years but he has finally managed to win a trophy with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Los Galacticos are one of the heavyweights of the MLS but have remained empty-handed since 2005. Since his move in 2007, Beckham had been hardly inspiring for the team with his spate of injuries and multiple loan spells to Milan. 2011 though would change that and Galaxy would win the MLS Cup and the MLS Supporter’s Shield. Beckham became the most influential player, scoring 2 goals and providing 13 assists in the 27 matches he played in. To put it into perspective, that count of 13 assists is the highest that Beckham has ever managed in his professional career in a single season.
Japan had been devastated in 2011 in a Tsunami, which had rendered a threat of nuclear pollution in the entire Asian region but within months, the Nadeshikowent on an amazing winning spree, to claim the first ever Football World Cup at the senior level for Asia. In the process, Japan became only the fourth ever winner of the Women’s World Cup. They had already beaten the hosts and two-time reigning champions Germany in the quarter final 1-0 after extra time and then easily disposed of the Swedes in the semis. Another two-time champion and heavyweights of the women’s game, the US awaited them in the final. Twice, the US took the lead; twice Japan equalised. The first was in the 81st minute and the second in the 117th minute. Ultimately, they would win 3-1 in the penalty shoot out to claim the first Asian World Cup. In addition, Japan won the FIFA Fair Play trophy too while ace forward, Homare Sawa won both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot. It was a magical night when all the stories that you have heard of David slaying Goliath came true.
Year of the Minnows
Honourable Mention II: A 30-year-old Romanian computer programmer, Eduard Ranghiuc spotted something which brought into focus the whole procedure in which teams are ranked by FIFA. Normally FIFA ranks and awards points in whole numbers and as per that ranking system, Wales was ahead of Faroe Island. However, with Mr. Ranghiuc spotting an error in FIFA’s calculation, he claimed the Faroese should have got 0.7 points more and that would push them beyond the Wales. The Faroe Association lobbied hard and Wales suffered the ignominy of being in the last pot of UEFA for the Qualifying draw. It may not matter ultimately as the Faroese have drawn Germany, Sweden, Irish Republic, Austria and Kazakhstan, and the Kazakhs are possibly their best chance to earn some points. The Welsh drew Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Belgium and fellow British side, Scotland.
Honourable Mention I: Back in Asia, it was a remarkable achievement when Afghanistan reached the finals of the South Asian Cup. Ravaged by war and ranked a lowly 178, the Afghans surprised everyone, including themselves by drawing with hosts and firm favourites, India in the lung opener. However, they then exceeded that performance by beating Sri Lanka and Bhutan in the group stages and then defeating the formidable Nepal (nearly 30 places ahead of them in FIFA rankings) in the semi finals. Their opponent in the final was India again. It was a tough match; the scores were tied till the Afghan goalkeeper was shown red and a penalty was awarded to India. After this incident, the Afghan resistance wilted and they lost the match 4-0.
They had last won a match in 1983 when neither they nor their opponent were part of FIFA. They have the world record for conceding the highest number of goals (31-0 shellacking at the hands of the Aussies). But 2011 must be remembered as a watershed for little American Samoa. That 1983 win was their only win in the international front till November 23, 2011, when a long ranger from Ramin Ott and a chipped finish by Shalom Luani led them to a 2-1 win over Tonga in the Oceania World Cup qualifiers. Coached by Thomas Rongen who played in the legendary Ajax side of the 70s, American Samoa would draw their next match with Cook Islands but a loss to Samoa put paid to their hopes of qualification.
The Thing About 18
Worldwide, 18 is considered the age when we attain maturity and are given the rights to drive a car or to vote. The target of 18 is thus the holy grail for many a teenager who would like to enjoy life to their fullest in a legal manner. 2011 strangely can be entwined around 18 with some of the best clubs entwined together at that number.
The Scudetto has been won an astounding 63 times out of 107 by three clubs – Juventus and the two Milan giants, Milan and Internazionale. Juventus have won 27 and Inter had raced to 18 on the back of 5 straight Scudetti since 2005-6, the first of which was awarded to them after the Calciopoli scandal. The 2005-06 Scudetto was won by Juventus who were stripped of the title and runner-up Milan was handed points penalty and Inter was thus handed the Scudetto by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC). The then Juventus Director of Sport, Luciano Moggi was implicated and handed a life ban. Moggi has kept on fighting the same in the courts and finally in 2011, new evidence was unearthed which showed that the phone calls, which were taken as evidence in 2011 did not include the whole set, which incidentally also showed calls made by the Inter President Giachento Fachetti. The obvious implications were that Inter were no less guilty of influencing referees than the other teams that were penalised in 2006. There was a huge uproar of taking that scudetto back from Inter or Inter voluntarily renouncing it. The club, however, were not ready to do that. Legally too there was no way to punish them as the events were more than five years old and under Italian law, they could not be prosecuted.
Meanwhile, city rivals Milan, who were stuck on 17 since 2003-04, surged ahead to win a ‘legitimate’ 18th Scudetto. For star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose transfer from Barcelona was the force behind Milan’s title push in 7 years, it was his 18th title playing for Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan.
At England though, Manchester United and Liverpool were already tied on 18 titles. (Notably, Liverpool’s 18th title had come when Kenny Dalglish was last in charge). The charge to 19 has eluded Liverpool for over two decades and 2011 marked the year when they were no longer the ‘winningest club in the top division of England’. Manchester United swept to #19 in effortless style, thus attaining the holy grail of breaking the long standing hoodoo of 18.
Incidentally, the World Club Cup that Barcelona won at the end of 2011 thrashing Santos, was their 18th title in the 21st century, or to be precise their 18th title since 2004-05 season. Well what’s so special about 2004-05? A barely 18 (17 years and 114 days to be precise) Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona in the league and life in Catalonia or world football community has not been the same again.
The Era Continues
While 18 is an enticing age for many, 25 is when probably we are slowly rising to the peak of our powers. But to stay for 25 years in the peak is indeed a very rare achievement. Two men achieved that in 2011 and in their own way, they have made their clubs the talking point for the past 25 years.
1986 was the year when Silvio Berlusconi, then a media magnate, bought Milan, saving it from bankruptcy and appointed a promising manager, Arrigo Sacchi at the helm. In a year, three Dutch players – Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit was bought and Italian and European football was never the same again. For a team, which had been relegated twice in the last eight years before Silvio stepped in, Milan since 1986 went on to win eight Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five Champions League trophies, five UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup. Milan still remains the last club to win consecutive Champions League/European Cup.
Mirroring that rise of Milan and Berlusconi has been that of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.A relatively unknown Alex Ferguson was brought in to take over a Manchester United team, which was flirting with relegation in 1986 under Ron Atkinson and Ferguson led them to an 11th finish. There was not an immediate impact like Milan had done but once Ferguson had built up his team, there was no stopping him or his club. The twenty-five years have brought in twelve Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League cups, ten Community Shields, two Champions leagues, one Cup Winners Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and one Club World Cup.
Both Berlusconi and Ferguson achieved distinctions outside the game, which were related directly or indirectly to their team’s performance. Berlusconi led his Forza Italia party to two terms as the Prime Minister of Italy and Ferguson was knighted for his services to the game.
Ironically, they both ended 2011 on a low. Berlusconi had to resign in the wake of the economic crisis gripping Italy and Sir Alex had to endure only the third ever elimination from the group stages of Champions League and a 6-1 thrashing in the Manchester derby – his worst ever defeat. One hopes they both survive these and such events turn out to be mere scares than watershed points of their reign.
Transfer Deal of the Year
Every year there are millions of transfers and it is very difficult to pick three that proved extremely valuable and the players in question played at a sufficiently high level to warrant discussion. Here, we discuss three men who came for free or next to nothing and had a huge impact in their club’s showing.
Honourable Mention II: What do you say when an absolute legend of the club, after a decade of winning every trophy and honour there is to win, chooses to walk away and join the biggest league rivals? Some feel betrayed but most are eager to wait and see what a 32-year-old legend discarded as too slow and on the downward slide, does to show there is still some fight left. Most Milan fans had that reaction when watching Andrea Pirlo in the black and white of Juventus after he opted not to renew his contract and moved on for free. In 16 matches, Pirlo didn’t score any goal and only contributed four assists, but his overall impact and gameplay was responsible for Juventus jointly topping the league ironically with Pirlo’s former club – Milan.
Honourable Mention I: That Milan push for the league was founded on an incredible 11 match unbeaten streak of which they drew only 2. Antonio Nocerino, former Juventus youth product, who was brought in the last hours before the summer transfer window closed for 0.5mn and co-ownership of a youth player. This, for an Italy international is really pittance. Nocerino though, took the opportunity to really burst through and establish himself as one of the starting members of the Milan midfield. In 15 matches, he scored 6 goals including a stunninghat trickagainstParma. This, in itself was more than he had ever managed in any season. Milan had found a true successor to Rino Gattuso.
But the transfer deal of the year is Demba Ba, a French born Senegalese footballer who joined Newcastle in the summer after joining West Ham in the end of the winter transfer window in 2011. Less than half the season with the Hammers was enough to prove his worth as he scored 7 goals in 13 appearances. But it was not enough and when the Hammers were relegated, Ba invoked a release clause and became a free agent. Newcastle snapped him up for the 2011-12 season and in 21 appearances for the Magpies, he scored 15 goals, easily becoming the principal reason for his team being in European slots after half the matches are over.
Transfer Deal of the Year (Not)
Life throws us opportunities at different times: what we do with them shows how good a strategist we are. Coincidentally, all three players chosen here can yet have a wonderful ending to the 2011-12 season but the huge amount of money spent on them by clubs bore little fruit.
Honorable Mention II: Young Jordan Henderson was plucked by Liverpool for €18 m and was touted as the best thing to have happened to Liverpool midfield since one Steven Gerrard burst through. Playing in 20 games though, he has only managed one goal and one assist. If the promise that he had shown at Sunderland is not evident, then one wonders if he would be discarded after a couple of seasons as an expensive mistake.
Honorable Mention I: Henderson though, can say that as a midfielder he is not supposed to score too many goals. That cannot be true for the other big signing that Liverpool made – Andy Carroll. As many as 31 matches for Liverpool fetched just 6 goals and no assists. A 22-year-old young striker settling down in his first big club may be a possible excuse but when you consider that he was bought for a transfer fee of €41mn, then you ought to check who was in charge of Liverpool negotiations.
That Liverpool was bidding in that range was a domino effect instigated by the mega deal that Chelsea had offered them for Fernando Torres. A club favourite, Torres antagonised the Red supporters when he turned hostile and asked to be transferred to Chelsea. In the end it was €58.5 that managed to prise open Liverpool’s grasp. Thought to be a new lease of life in the troubled striker’s career, he managed 5 goals and 8 assists in 39 matches. It also included this miss which really defined his season and made him a subject of ridicule.
Comebacks are always exciting, and the ones especially achieved on the road are particularly so. The Japanese women came back twice to level in the Women’s World Cup before winning it on penalties. However, we have picked three league matches where the trailing team showed extraordinary fighting spirit to come back and win, or level from a hopeless cause.
Honourable Mention II: Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4. Arsenal were leading by 4 goals to nil till the 68th minute when Laurent Koscielny brought down Leon Best for a penalty, which Joey Barton converted. Then Best had a goal incorrectly disallowed for offside before making it 4-2 from a Jose Enrique cross. Newcastle was on a roll and soon Koscielny succumbed again, fouling Mike Williamson to concede the second penalty, which Barton converted again. The 4th goal was a blistering long ranger from Chiek Tiote in the 87th minute.
Honourable Mention I: Lecce 3 Milan 4. Milan had travelled to Lecce with just two wins in seven matches. However, they were caught unaware as Lecce scored 3 goals in 37 minutes and Milan were looking at a despondent loss. Manager Max Allegri threw in the cavalry during half time with Alberto Aquilani and Kevin-Prince Boateng replacing Massimo Ambrosini and Robinho. The impact was stunning. Boateng started connecting with laser- guided missiles, which found the back of the Lecce net. 16 minutes after the restart, he had tied the scores at 3-3, scoring a 14-minute hat-trick in the process. The final winning goal would come from the oldest man on the field – Mario Yepes, heading home an Antonio Cassano cross. Milan’s miracle was complete.
The most memorable comeback though was Santos 4 Flamengo 5. It was built up as the clash between age and youth – of Ronaldinho’s Flamengo and Neymar’s Santos. Santos had begun the match on a fire and were up by 3 goals within 25 minutes but Flamengo tied-up the match by scoring 3 goals of their own. In between, Elano of Santos missed a penalty but Neymar restored the lead at the start of the second half. But the last laugh was to be Dinho’s who scored twice to complete his hat-trick and an epic come-from-behind win at the home ground of the South American and Brazilian champion club.
I Can’t Believe This Happened
Honourable mention II: Manchester United failed to reach the Champions League knockout rounds for only the third time since the two-legged group structure had started. A team which had reached three of the last four Champions League finals, winning one and only losing out to the collective brilliance of Barcelona, managed to defeat the Romanian debutants Otelul Galati in the group stages. Losses to Basel and draws with Benfica sealed their fate, and the fact that Manchester City too were dumped out of the knockout rounds by a brilliant Napoli team, was scant consolation.
Honourable Mention I: 2011 is the first time since Juventus and Liverpool are both missing out on any European action since….the 1962-63 season. The previous season (61-62), Juventus had finished 12th while Liverpool were champions in the Second Division, thus gaining promotion to the First Division. Together, these two behemoths of European competition have won seven Champions Leagues/European Cups, six UEFA Cups, five UEFA Super Cups, one Cup Winners Cup, one Intertoto Cup and two Intercontinental Cups. So when they both spend a season completely out of Europe, you pinch yourself to believe it.
The most unlikely event of 2011 was River Plate getting demoted. Goalden Times have already covered this story in detailbut one statistic alone would show the magnitude of the shock. Since the professional league started in Argentina in 1931, River has won 33 titles in 80 years. They are easily the most decorated and venerated club of the nation and a season without El Clasico with Boca Juniors is something fans of both clubs would never have imagined.
Honorable Mention II: Mario Balotelli is no stranger to controversy. His recent antics include throwing darts during training and the incident of the training bib. But he seemingly outdid that when prior to the Manchester derby, a firework was set off in his flat’s bathroom, which subsequently burnt the house down. A quite unfazed Balotelli opened the scoring in the derby though in what would turn out to be a 6-1 thrashing. What made that goal celebration even more epic was Super Mario’s shirt display.
Honorable Mention I: If Mario was cheeky, with his celebrations, then Gerard Pique and his Barcelona teammates were positively barmy. After winning their fourth Champions League, the Barcelona players were looking to take some Wembley mementos back home. But Gerard Pique had ‘bigger’ ideas and hemanaged to pry off the entire nets from the goal posts. Apparently, he was following a tradition established by the basketball side of Barcelona, who cut the net as a memento when they win a trophy. But not since Madonna’s ‘Human Nature’ has someone been seen with so much rope and net….for all one knows, Shakira may have a new rope trick.
The most whacky celebrations though happened in Italian football at the end of the 2010-11 season in Serie A and Serie B. In the post-Scudetto winning revelry, with most players in their shorts and fully inebriated, Massimo Oddo tried an Olympicrun. But in Serie B, an even more eccentric man was celebrating an even more momentous occasion. Novara had won the Serie B play-offs and were returning to Serie A after 55 long years and Jimmy Fontana was not really sure how best to celebrateit.
Best Football Performances
Honourable Mention II: Robin van Persie has been the single most in-form player of 2011 outside of anyone who does not play in Madrid or Barcelona. 35 Premier League goals in 2011, the 2nd highest in a calendar year since Alan Shearer struck 36 in 1995 and already 17 Premier League goals this season in 20 games marks 2011 as a truly phenomenal year for the Dutchman.
Honourable Mention I: Zlatan Ibrahimovic courts more controversy than goals but his record of winning eight consecutive league championships is simply unmatched. He is the talisman that can lead any club to a league win. These eight wins were achieved with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. But for the Barcelona win, every other club that actually won the league with Ibra broke a streak of some other club. He is that kind of a player – someone who can pull his team through in the big home games or tough away fixtures. Now if only he could score in the Champions League.
However, the best football achievement was the tango that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo unfurled in La Liga. It was a personal war within the two-team battle that Barcelona and Real Madrid have made La Liga. Messi scored 51 goals in the 2010-11 season and Ronaldo managed 53. While Messi won the La Liga and the Champions League, Ronaldo won the Copa del Rey. In the 2011-12 season, it is no different. Ronaldo has 26 goals in 25 matches for Madrid while Messi has 31 goals in 30 matches for Barcelona. They are the two best players of their generation and it is fitting they go head-to-head in the same league.
Best Performance by a Footballer
This is one of a kind and deserves its own space. We end this look back at the year that went by withthisperformanceby Kevin-Prince Boateng. That he could manage that, dothisand thisand thisand of coursethismakes him a complete entertainer.
Keep Watching Football and enjoy a Goalden 2012!
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.