World CupSunday, June 15, 2014
Hopes of a nation
For the Herald
The waiting is over. Today, Argentina finally begins its World Cup campaign. Hotly-tipped as one of the favourites to win the tournament and with the best player in the world leading the team as skipper, the pressure is really on. Can La Albiceleste do it? Can they win the World Cup in front of their biggest rivals? Can the team add a third star to its famous striped shirt?
In just a few short hours, Argentina will be walking out onto the hallowed turf of Rio de Janeiro’s Estadio Maracaná. The famous old stadium has been completely remodelled for the World Cup, to the point where it is almost unrecognizable as the site of the famous final in 1950, where Brazilian hearts were broken by Uruguay’s late winner.
But Alejandro Sabella and his players will not be sight-seeing. La Albiceleste, backed by almost 40 million fans in Buenos Aires, Rosario, Córdoba and across the nation, will be treating the first clash of Group F as a reconnaissance mission as they kick off their campaign against Bosnia & Herzegovina. The whole country wants to be back in Rio on July 13, to see Lionel Messi lift Argentina’s third World Cup in the backyard and spiritual home of their arch-rivals.
Is it just a pipe-dream? Not at all. The squad go into this World Cup as one of the favourites for glory. Captain Messi is of course the standard-bearer, but there is talent across the pitch who can fire Argentina to success. Of course, if the side are feeling confident of victory, they are doing their very best to keep that feeling hidden.
A banner erected above the entrance to the team’s training base in Belo Horizonte’s Cidade do Galo complex tempted fate by declaring “Welcome to the future champions”. The famously superstitious team manager Carlos Bilardo, responsible for glory in 1986, was apoplectic, ordering the banner to be taken down immediately. Nothing will be allowed to jinx the nation’s preparations in Brazil; but spirits nonetheless are high amongst those charged with bringing home success.
“I would change all my records to be crowned champions in a World Cup, to make my country’s people happy,” Messi explained in the run-up to the tournament, during a candid press conference.
“We have been working very well and very hard, we are strong, confident, I feel that we are going down a good path. The World Cup is already upon us and everyone in this team knows the hope that we have awoken in the fans.”
The fight for glory
La Pulga will be key to Argentina’s fight for glory.
Although he missed out on a fifth consecutive Ballon d’Or trophy in favour of Cristiano Ronaldo last December, his title as best player on earth is still not seriously in doubt.
The Rosario-born number 10 has the ability to galvanize his team, and after being doubted perhaps more than anybody for what were considered sub-par performances in international colours, there are signals that he has finally discovered the key to shining for La Albiceleste.
Coach Alejandro Sabella’s decision to hand him the captain’s armband was key in this development. Finally given a protagonist role in the first XI, after years of sharing responsibility with players such as Carlos Tévez and previously Juan Román Riquelme, the little genius responded with his best displays ever in an Argentina shirt.
World Cup qualifying was negotiated with Messi at the forefront, smashing 10 goals to help the side go through to Brazil in first place amongst the South American challengers. And there was even time for an outstanding hat-trick against Brazil, taking down the World Cup hosts and favourites in a friendly with three incredible goals in a 4-3 victory. The omens could not be more positive for the star.
Messi will not be on his own during the World Cup. Confidence ahead of the tournament is based on the fact that no other team on earth can match La Albiceleste in terms of attacking talent.
The Barcelona phenomenon is accompanied in a forward trident by Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero, a player with similar physical attributes to his long-time companion in Argentina’s youth and senior teams and who comes fresh from a fantastic season in England which included a Premier League title for the Citizens.
Gonzalo Higuaín, an irrepressible goalscorer who hit nine during qualifying and enjoyed an impressive debut season for Diego Maradona’s former club, Napoli, completes the trio and will hope to build on his four goals which crowned him Argentine top scorer in South Africa four years ago. All three are top-class performers, capable of scoring goals against defences of the highest quality.
But perhaps the most important player Sabella has at his disposal lies just a little further back down the pitch. Ángel Di Maria wrote himself into the Real Madrid history books in May, somehow defying exhaustion deep into extra time to break Átletico Madrid hearts during the Champions League final. The wiry winger grabbed the ball almost on the halfway line and embarked on a lung-busting run down the left, with the score still deadlocked at 1-1 and penalties appearing imminent. But the Argentine did not stop, and finished his individual foray with the perfect cross for Gareth Bale to head home and send a 10th European Cup title to the Bernabeu.
In the form of his life, Di Maria’s energy, dribbing expertise and brilliant left foot could be vital to Argentina’s counter-attacking plans, as he rips apart teams from deep using his seemingly endless reserves of stamina and heart.
This high-octane forward play will be a feature of the La Albiceleste throughout Brazil 2014. Sabella’s favoured team is not one reproduced from the classic days of La Nuestra, favouring possession play, slick passing and a magisterial playmaker who controls the game. They do possess all of those attributes, but choose to employ their abilities in a faster game that aims to stretch opposition defences to breaking-point right from the start of an attack.
Di Maria’s bursts, the passing talents of Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano and Messi’s unpredictable genius mean that when the side break from deep, those trying to stop them literally do not know from where the killer blow is going to emerge.
28 years is a long time for Argentina to be without a World Cup.
Six tournaments have come and gone since that last, Maradona-inspired success in 1986, and all have ended in heart-break. For that reason, no fan wants to come out and predict victory in the Maracaná just yet. And there are weaknesses in the team that will have to be addressed during the tournament.
The defence has improved immeasurably since those kamikaze days of Maradona and 2010, but it could still prove to be an Achilles heel against the likes of Spain, Germany, Brazil and the world’s best.
The side suffered most during qualifying against teams that hid hard and direct down the flanks, and that has not been addressed in the run-up to this tournament. Behind the back-line, goalkeeper Sergio Romero needs to be at his best to expel the doubts over his place in the team.
But there is still reason for confidence. The football gods have been kind to Argentina, granting them a straightforward group (Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria await) and a theoretically accessible path to the semi-finals.
It will be on the back of their explosive attacking talent that La Albiceleste can claim a place in the World Cup’s final stages; and from there, just two great performances will be needed to fulfil the prophecy presented by that controversial banner tossed into the rubbish bin by Bilardo.