The Squad: Roberto Abbondanzieri (Boca Juniors), Leonardo Franco (Atletico Madrid), Oscar Ustari (Independiente); Fabricio Coloccini (Deportivo La Coruna), Leandro Cufre (Roma), Roberto Ayala (Valencia), Nicolas Burdisso (Internazionale), Gabriel Milito (Real Zaragoza), Gabriel Heinze (Manchester United), Juan Pablo Sorin (Villarreal); Juan Roman Riquelme (Villarreal), Luis Gonzalez (Porto); Javier Mascherano (Corinthians), Esteban Cambiasso (Internazionale), Maximiliano Rodriguez (Atletico Madrid), Pablo Aimar (Valencia), Lionel Scaloni (West Ham United); Hernan Crespo (Chelsea), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Carlos Tevez (Corinthians), Rodrigo Palacio (Boca Juniors), Javier Saviola (Sevilla), Julio Cruz (Internazionale)
How Qualified: 2nd in CONMEBOL
World Ranking: 9
Previous Appearances: (13) 1930, 1934, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002.
Coach: Jose Pekerman
Best performance: Winners 1966
Expected Line-up: During qualifying Pekerman used over 50 players, he also flirted 3313, 3412 and 433 formations; so really, your guess is as good as mine.
In September 2003 I stood in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aries taking photo’s of the Casa Rosada and it’s [i]Evita balcony[/i] where Mrs Peron used to greet her adoring public. A local [i]Porteno[/i] approached me and said “That is a very important balcony in the history of our nation... It is where Maradona showed us the World Cup”. That tells you all you need to know about the Argentine attitude to football: It’s more important than anything else; her great footballers are held in higher regard than any other figures in her history; they are the true people’s champions. Consequently, expectations of success for the national team are always high, irrespective of whether or not those expectations are justified. This year they are.
The country’s desire for the international success that [b]Maradona[/b] brought in 1986, and the likes of [b]Mario Kempes[/b] provided when the Cup was won at home in 1978, has lead to every emerging talent being likened to their great number ten. [b]Juan Roman Riquelme[/b] is latest player to take the Diego role for the Blue and Whites, playing as the 1 in a flowing 3-3-1-3 formation. After a false start to his European career at Barcelona, Riquelme has re-ignited himself over the past two years with Villareal. With the team built around him, he’s been the foundation upon which the Yellow Submarines’ rise has been built. A creative midfielder who is seemingly able to spot and play the most intricate of passes, in one year his through balls managed to turn Diego Forlan from a Manchester United flop to a European Golden boot winner. This season he was the driving force behind their run to the Champions League semi finals (where his unfortunate last minute penalty miss saw them go out to Arsenal).
Whilst Riquelme was crashing out of one semi, his compatriot, young [b]Lionel Messi[/b], was watching from the sidelines as Barcelona team won the competition. Messi looked the outstanding player when Barcelona took on Chelsea earlier on in the competition (which is some praise considering he was sharing a pitch with Ronaldinhio) but an injury in the second leg of that tie meant that he didn’t play another game for Barca. With England gripped by the will he/won’t he play saga of Rooney’s World Cup call up, Argentina have witnessed similar drama concerning their own prodigious talent’s participation. Messi hasn’t played since that game at Camp Nou, but he is named in the squad and is certain to feature.
Another player returning from injury at just the right time is Manchester United’s [b]Gabriel Heinze[/b]. In his first season at United he proved himself to be one of the outstanding fullbacks in the Premiership. His past season was ruined by a knee ligament injury in September that ruled him out of all but United’s final game where he sat on the bench. His role for Argentina is slightly different, operating on the left hand side of a back three. With Argentina drawn in a “Group of Death” alongside other favourites Holland, as well as two potential surprise packages in Ivory Coast and USA, Heinze could be crucial for Argentina; in a back three, if Heinze isn’t fully fit, any mistakes could prove costly in what is likely to be a tight group. Conversely, if he’s on top form, alongside the experienced [b]Roberto Ayala[/b] and defensive midfielders such as [b]Cambiasso[/b] and [b]Mascherano[/b], he can be instrumental in providing the solid base from which the attacking talents of Messi, Riquelme and [b]Tevez[/b] can shine.
Both the aforementioned Mascherano and Tevez play in Brazil. That in itself has been a source of controversy as their club, Corinthians, are backed by the mysterious MSI group who are spending unprecedented amounts of money for South American football. Considered two of the countries brightest prospects, Mascherano and Tevez played for River Plate and Boca Juniors respectively (the two biggest clubs in Argentina). One, a dominating midfielder, the other an explosive striker who’s stocky build and fantastic ability have brought the inevitable Maradona comparisons; rather than follow the convention path to Europe, they spurned the advances of the likes of Munich and Madrid in order to cross the border to play in the league of Argentina’s biggest footballing rivals. This defection was looked down upon in many quarters.
With two World Cups and fourteen Copa Americas, Argentina has an illustrious history that any country would be proud of, but no matter what they achieve, they always remain in the shadow of their neighbours. From the legend of Pele eclipsing Maradona; Brazil’s 1970 team often referred to as the best ever; to the recent past of Brazil holding two out of the past three World Cups, the mere mention of their ever-so-slightly more distinguished neighbours leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of Argentines.
Brazil, yet again, are the bookies’ favourites, but Argentina are also well equipped this year. They have a strong, experienced backline, a dynamic, creative midfield and intelligent, tricky forwards. Traditionally though, South American teams haven’t fared well in Europe; only Brazil in 1958 having won on European soil (when the tournament was held in Sweden). Added to that, if Argentina start slowly (as they did four years ago) they could find themselves out of the competition before they really get going. The group stage is going to be tough, with three difficult games, but if they come through that as group winners (as they should do), confidence will be high. From there, they have to be considered amongst the favourites. Brazil are most people’s picks this year, but Argentina, alongside England, Germany and a few others sit in a group of teams just below them. These teams will all feel that with a bit of luck, and the right players coming into form, they could win the World Cup. Argentina will need less luck than most.