What’s with Argentina?

The 1986 World Cup was a memorable event in more ways than one. The tournament was pulled off beautifully, albeit the skepticism surrounding Mexico hosting the tournament following the devastating earthquake. The kind of football on display that year was matchless. Nations like West Germany, Brazil, France, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, England and Uruguay along with the champions, produced superlative football that year. Several players like Zico, Platini, Littbarski, Butragueño, Laudrup (Michael), Scifo, Linekar and Francescoli left a lasting impression ; however one man rose above the rest to attain a ‘God’-ly status.
The following World Cup, four years hence, was a different ball game altogether for Argentina. Although they managed to make it to the final, after much struggle, Andreas Brehme’s penalty made West Germany taste its sweet revenge of 1986. The final game was appropriately described by George Vecsey of The New York Times as, ‘Winning Ugly, Losing Ugly, Just Plain Ugly’. The 1994 World Cup witnessed an unfortunate exit of a great football playing nation. The team had been a tad disoriented post the suspension of their talismanic leader and Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania probably had played their game of the tournament to eliminate Argentina.
The last time Argentina senior team won a title was the 1993 Copa America. It’s been eighteen long years now. Is the team falling back owing to a dearth of talent? Winning 5 FIFA World Youth Championships (now FIFA U-20 World Cup) between 1995 and 2007 and 2 successive Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008 might suggest otherwise. Argentines are dominating
the international club football scene for some years now; however, there seems to be some issues within the national team, right from the selection process to the manner of play on the pitch. Fans back home in Argentina blame it on the Argentine Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona. Grondona had taken

over as the president of AFA following the World Cup triumph in 1978, and the 1986 World Cup win had cemented his position at AFA. Recent allegations against him suggest he is running it as a personal business for the last 15 years or so. He’s got the media and the general people to back him by having the manager include several popular players into the team, without much care for the team strategy. Grondona has plans to re-contest in the forthcoming AFA elections due in October. There was a protest demonstration held on August 2, in front of the AFA offices in Buenos Aires demanding Grondona’s resignation.
One may wonder how far the allegation surrounding Grondona is true. Let’s consider this year’s Copa America. Carlos Tevez was initially not a part of manager Sergio Batista’s plan. In the friendly matches held prior to the Copa, Tevez was left out. Could be because he once refused to play for the national team or could be Batista, having already worked with
many of the players in the current squad in Olympic 2008, didn’t find a specific role for Tevez in the team. However, for the Copa, Tevez was named in the starting line-up in the first 2 games. There is no denying that Tevez is supremely talented and had a great season at Manchester City, albeit the tactical chemistry not being fluid between him and the rest of the players. The allegation here is Tevez being the most popular national team player back in Argentina, Grondona had instructed Batista to include him in the team and in honoring the In the 1998 World Cup, Argentina’s (and arguably Real Madrid’s as well) then best player was left at home because of his long hair! Everybody demanded Ariel Ortega; he made a mistake, and got all the blame while
the president, the manager sacrificed his original plan and we found a lacklustre team in the first 2 games.
After a few brilliant matches in each tournament, the players pretty much resembled the NBA players from the movie Space Jam, who, devoid of skills after the aliens take away their power, moved about like zombies, lifeless; without any chemistry, cohesion or tactic, they stepped over each other’s feet, out of position, and with no leader in the middle.
One concern, however, has been common since the 1998 World Cup – that of inappropriate selection of players and / or playing them in unsuitable positions. Surprisingly, not only the coaches, but Grondona, the media and the fans, have always demanded certain players to play and more often than not these players have been brought in at the middle of a crisis when the chances of failure have been high. And once that happens, then the media starts blasting the players and as a consequence, they get so emotionally drained that they find it tough to recover.
manager, Daniel Pasarella still had every chance to destroy River Plate by hiring Juan José “J. J.” López.
River Plate’s relegation this year is ample testimony to where Argentine football has reached. AFA has a plan to merge first and second divisions the next 6 months. This apparently is Grondona’s plan to get the votes of the second division clubs. The project is on hold for now and a topic for a separate discussion.
In the 2002 World Cup, manager Marcelo Bielsa left Juan Román Riquelme, Javier Saviola and Santiago Solari, and got 35 year old Claudio Caniggia in the team. Fernando Redondo was ignored once again although he was the player of the match against Brazil at Buenos Aires in 1999 where Argentina won 2-0 under Bielsa. There was Pablo Aimar, who was flourishing at Valencia, having made it to two consecutive UEFA Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 and at the time, acknowledged as one of the most creative players around. Aimar needed the World Cup to cement his status as an Argentine great, but he was benched. Bielsa
got him in when it was too late, in the must win last group stage game against Sweden and put him in the central midfield alongside Ortega, a situation where he was more likely to fail, and he did. In the earlier games against Nigeria and England, he was used merely as a substitute. The same people who had demanded his inclusion later felt that he may not be that good. Aimar was never the same again; in fact he didn’t get a decent opportunity to redeem himself. A player who could have been one of the greatest in his generation was set up for failure by external circumstances, and then hung out to dry. However, Bielsa who had an equal, if not greater responsibility came out with his reputation intact, in spite of not managing to survive the group stages of the tournament.
2006 was complicated. Manager José Pekerman, the man behind the success in the World Youth Championship, looked all set to carry it to the senior level. For some reason, he left Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel at home. Hernán Crespo and Saviola played with great chemistry. Many wanted Tevez and Lionel Messi to start although they were better off as super-subs against tiring oppositions. In the quarter-final against Germany, Tevez started instead of Saviola, as Pekerman gave in to the popular demand. The chemistry between Saviola and Crespo could not be recreated by Tevez. Notwithstanding the issues, Argentina scored early in the second half and looked all set to progress beyond the Quarter Final stage for the first time since 1990. However, the good deed was undone by a momentary lapse of reason by Pekerman. He took off Crespo and Riquelme to bring in Julio Cruz and Esteban
Cambiasso. One may have felt that Argentina is leading and needs to consolidate their defense and justify Cambiasso’s introduction, but with Riquelme’s departure, the team lost its key player, who was holding the team together and channelising the play from midfield. To this date, Argentine fans fail to comprehend Pekerman’s rationale behind Julio Cruz’s introduction, while the likes of Messi and Saviola were made to cool their heels on the bench. Cruz was not even a regular at Inter Milan.
2010 was more like seeing the nation go on a suicide mission; one couldn’t possibly do much to prevent it with someone like Diego Maradona at the helm. Maradona, the magician with the ball, was never quite known for his tactical ability. Zanetti was once again ignored, when he could have been the ideal leader at the pitch, and this was perhaps also the time to have Cambiasso in the team, especially due to what they had achieved at Inter Milan that season. Argentina won all the group games and the 2nd round against Mexico, but the portents were visible with the team being too much dependant on Messi. Predictably, Argentina were badly found wanting against the tactically sound Germans and went out with a whimper.
Messi’s goal scoring statistics for the club and the national team is so in contrast that critics find it easy to put the sole blame on him. Thankfully he is still quite young and a powerhouse of talent. But if the ‘blame it on Leo’ game continues, the young man may find the burden beyond his scope to tackle, and consequently Argentina may lose arguably one of the best players to have touched the ball. The manager needs to ease the pressure and
provide him with more space to play. Apparently, a convenient solution might be to have Messi take over as the leader. There, however, lies a fundamental flaw in such a thought process. Messi to me is not a born leader. Javier Mascherano, the only footballer with 2 Olympic gold medals, is clearly not an ideal leader either. Neither is his performance awe-inspiring nor does he maintain a stable head on his shoulder.
Well, it’s indeed been a difficult couple of decades for Argentina fans. I have spent many a painful night seeing Argentina choking at critical moments – be it in the World Cup, the Copa America or the Confederations Cup since 1993. There were times when my wife could gauge the outcome of an Argentina game from my sleeping posture. It was not until I read Orhan Pamuk that I learnt how severe pain has its way of being manifested. It’s like acid-filled grenades exploding in my veins as I sort through my bundle of fond memories with the way the team may have played in the past; distracting myself, briefly and intermittently, until the same memories would propel me deeper into the void.
I am greatly concerned about this national team’s future. Most people are looking forward to Javier Pastore. The question is, do we really want him to play in such dire conditions? I see 2002 all over again, Pastore is the new Aimar now. If he fails to live up to the expectations of his followers, fans may look out for another target like Erik Lamela.
Alejandro Sabella has been confirmed as the Argentina coach until after the 2014 World Cup finals, contingent on Argentina qualifying for
the tournament. Is he the right man? We would like to hope so. His managerial stint with Estudiantes de La Plata, where he won the 2009 Copa Libertadores, earned him a lot of respect. But he needs to be given time and space which may not be a real possibility with

Grondona and his men running the show.
I am not too sure what might ensue as a consequence to the protest against Grondona. Argentine football needs to revive drastically; else one of the best generations of footballers would be overshadowed by other football playing nations. I’d rather let Grondona, the media and fans take the blame for the current state of affairs. A revamp of the domestic league could perhaps keep more Argentines at home, and help improve the coordination among them and compassion for the country. Argentina national team needs a capable coach who can make the right decisions. With more able leaders, this nation is bound to recover from this abysmal state and relive the golden times.
Indranath Mukherjee follows South American and European football. Apart from Football, Film and Music keep him going. You can follow him on twitter @indranath