Argentina’s kids saved by miracle qualification
For the Herald
Under-20 team secure place at Junior World Cup by the skin of their teeth — there’s plenty to think about after a disappointing campaign
A disastrous start to the South American Under-20 Championships left Argentina needing nothing short of a miracle to grab fourth place and seal a spot at this year’s Junior World Cup (or FIFA U-20 World Cup). And in the end, a miracle was just what they received.
An incredible run of results to turn around what appeared a moribund campaign, helped by the goalscoring exploits of Lautaro Martínez, means the team directed by Claudio Ubeda finally sealed a spot in South Korea alongside champions Uruguay, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Racing Club youngster Martínez had been one of Argentina’s strongest performers in an otherwise bitterly disappointing Championship. Ubeda’s kids had fallen to 3-0 defeats at the hands of both Uruguay and Ecuador, and only a narrow victory over Colombia kept the squad alive going into their last two games of the tournament.
Then, 2-1 down to Brazil heading into injury time, Argentina was already packing its bags for a return home bound to be full of criticisms and recriminations. Martínez, however, had other ideas.
Having already netted the winner against Colombia in the final minute, the striker repeated the feat to pull Argentina back into the game and seal a 2-2 draw last Wednesday. But there was more to come; Martínez hit both of the Albiceleste’s goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Venezuela, a result that gave the team a further lifeline.
The final images of Argentina’s South American Championship were rather unedifying; Ubeda and his squad huddled in a corner of Quito’s Atahualpa Stadium hoping that Brazil dropped the points necessary to send his charges through to Korea. But nevertheless, their prayers were answered as Colombia dug deep to grab a goalless draw, meaning the five-time Junior World Cup champion fails to qualify for the tournament for just the third time in its 40-year history.
Argentina may not have made the finals by virtue of its stunning soccer or even its tactical intelligence, but ultimately it showed the heart and guts to pull through against all odds.
It was the perfect way to end a week where the focus of Argentine soccer, in the continued absence of the Primera División, shifted to the Ecuadorean capital of Quito. And perhaps nobody stood out as much as Luis Juez, the brusque politician from Córdoba currently acting as ambassador to the South American nation.
Juez stole the headlines last week with a cameo in Atlético Tucumán’s breakneck dash to a Copa Libertadores tie with El Nacional after a plane mix-up had put the game in serious jeopardy. Screaming “fuck the rules” down a television microphone while standing on a team bus haring down the motorway at 130km/hour may seem outside the remit of normal diplomatic duties, but it worked for Atlético, who got their game and overcame the home side 1-0 in an unforgettable clash.
He was again deeply involved for Saturday’s vital game against Venezuela, after Ubeda invited the ambassador into the dressing room to give an inspirational pre-match speech. “I told the kids to give everything, and now we are off to drink some Fernets!” he beamed to the cameras after Brazil’s fate had been sealed.
His presence lent another surreal dimension to what was already a story worthy of the best of Roberto Fontanarrosa and Osvaldo Soriano, those inspired fabricators of soccer folklore; but sooner or later the Under-20s will have to come back down to earth and face the truth. Qualification for the World Cup should not be allowed to disguise the limitations of a campaign that betrayed the institutional and strategic vacuum that currently reigns in Argentine soccer.
“Reality shows that many national teams has evolved but we, by not having the ability nor the time to work together, have taken a step backwards with regards to South American soccer,” Ubeda noted to La Nación, just hours before that decisive match at the weekend. His point was clear: that without the support of the AFA, cooperation from clubs nor time to mould together a team, the result would inevitably be the type of disjointed, hope-for-the-best soccer that was Argentina’s trademark at this tournament. Now Ubeda has received a stroke of luck. The man who was fast-tracked under mysterious circumstances into the job, having failed to put forward a written project for the Under-20s — unlike dozens of competitors — will now surely stay in the post until May and the World Cup.
He nevertheless has no time to lose. Argentina’s qualification was a minor miracle, a gripping way to end the tournament and the second great chapter of soccer written in less than a week in the altitude of Quito. But the job is far from complete, and Ubeda, his staff, his players and the AFA itself must start taking the Under-20s seriously if they are to avoid a potentially humiliating stop in South Korea in just three short months.