Nickname: La Albiceleste (White and Sky Blue)
Rankings: 9 (FIFA) 4 (SPI)
Elite Players: Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano,
Key Players: Juan Sebastien Veron, Sergio Aguero, Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain
History: Winner (1978, 1986) Finalist (1930,1990)
Odds to Win: 7.5 to 1
“I used the hand of reason.” – Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona believes that Leo Messi will make the best player of all-time debate between him and Pele redundant. This tournament could cement that sentiment. Messi has a career’s worth of accomplishments at club level – two Champions Leagues, three La Liga titles, a Ballon D’Or – and, scarily, he’s only 22. However, to be truly transcendent, he needs to do it at the World Cup. Pele, Beckenbauer, Maradona and Zidane all took over at least one World Cup. To trump them all, Messi must do the same.
Qualifying: Argentina finished fourth in South American qualifying. They needed a gutty 1-0 away win against Uruguay to avoid a playoff. They had finished first, or tied for first, every year since 1998. Their run wasn’t impressive, but it wasn’t a disaster. Qualifying from South America is difficult. You don’t play cupcakes, such as Cyprus or the Faroe Islands. The four other qualifiers – Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay – are all threats to emerge from their World Cup group. Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela all hovered around the final place. Even lighter opponents such as Bolivia are brutal away draws with the altitude advantage.
Talent: Argentina is to soccer what Copenhagen is to attractive blonde women. The quality and abundance of gifted players is absurd. While the senior teams have underperformed recently, the youth teams have been dominant. Since 1995, Argentina has won five U-20 World Cups. Argentine U-23 squads at the Olympics have won a silver (1996) and two golds (2004, 2008). The four Champions League semifinalists start nine Argentines. The top scorers for Barcelona, Lyon and Inter Milan are all Argentine. Only one, Leo Messi, has a guaranteed place in the Starting XI.
Troubles With God: Diego Maradona is a ridiculous person. The cocaine, the weight troubles, the tax evasion, the friendship with Castro, telling the assembled media “to suck it and carry on sucking it” is all stupid and indefensible. However, Maradona was an exceedingly intelligent player. He has an innate grasp for soccer. Based on the mixed results and the selection policy, it might flow logically that he’s a buffoon out of his depth, but that explanation is simplistic and unhelpful. Instead of focusing on what Maradona did not do during qualifying, we should look at what he was trying to do.
Maradona repeatedly has praised two players, Mascherano and Messi. They’re the only ones guaranteed a place. That’s sensical. They are the best players in the world at key positions. The focus is right. The trouble is placing players around them.
It’s easy to read the names at his disposal and be dismissive. Argentina has many talented players. Those players, however, offer similar skills. It’s the stereotypical Argentine problem. They produce two types of players: skillful attacking midfielders and midfielders who thwart skillful attacking midfielders. They seldom produce great defenders or lead strikers. Having Milito, Augero and Tevez to choose from sounds great, but they’re all similar and none are an ideal partner for Messi.
Maradona called up 72 players for qualifiers, because he saw holes in the squad. He wanted a playmaker to linkup the forwards and midfield. He wanted a big, physical presence up front to create space. He went to Veron, 35, and Martin Palermo, 36, respectively. The inconsistency nearly eliminated them in qualifying, but there was a logic. If their friendly win against Germany in March is an indicator, the turbulence has settled.
La Seleccion: The team that went out against Germany should resemble the final one strongly. Messi will dictate. Higuain is the best choice to partner him up front. Playing with Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, he’s shown he can blend into the team, thrive without the ball and finish. He’s second top-scorer in La Liga with 25 goals in 28 appearances.
Veron is the type of playmaker who can get him the ball in advantageous positions, even if you can make the argument for Cambiasso or the youngster Ever Banega at that position. Maradona was wise to have a fallout with Riquelme. Like Michael Owen, he’s one dimensional and needs play funneled through him, at the expense of others, to be effective. Riquelme is no longer good enough to warrant that. His time has passed. On the wings, Angel Di Maria linked up well with Messi at the Olympics, scoring two decisive goals. Jonas Gutierrez is a runner, who can stretch the defense.
Argentina’s defense is the soft spot. Mascherano playing in front of them will make them look better. Ideally you would want a seasoned goalkeeper with eager, athletic defenders for him to command. The Argentines have two young goalkeepers and elderly defenders. Gabriel Heinze was beginning to curdle when he was at Manchester United, in 2007. Walter Samuel is hovering near the empty light. Martin Demichelis could do the same job for Argentina he does for Bayern, advancing into midfield on the attack to help hold possession.
Conclusion: The Argentines are solid. Maradona should be more stable. Argentina is so far superior they should advance through the group easily. In the latter stages where a single mistake can kill a team, I worry about their defense. Consider them in the second-tier of contenders, along with Germany and England, unless Messi takes over the tournament like his predecessor did in 1986.
Random Fact: Argentina has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world. Since 1970, 1 in 30 Argentines have had plastic surgery.
Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece
Group C: England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile