Friday, October 16, 2009
Argentina live to fight another day
Well, it's been memorable. Qualification looked comfortable for Argentina in the final table, four points clear of fifth-placed Uruguay and a full five ahead of Ecuador in sixth, who lost out on the play-offs thanks to Chile continuing to play to the end in spite of having assured qualification early. Why all the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the run-up?
But if anyone thinks the worries of Diego Maradona's first year in charge of Argentina were forgotten with the sweep of Mario Bolatti's right foot which secured a 1-0 win over their oldest and nearest rivals, they're wrong. The rollercoaster which is Maradona's stewardship was always going to be talked about ad infinitum whatever the result on Wednesday night, and his spectacular post-match press conference only made the stories easier to write.
That press conference has already passed into something akin to football folklore all over the planet, so I won't reiterate too much of the crotch-grabbing or the never-ending tirades against the press. One thing that struck me was that the second question referred to the tactics used in the match, which were more defensive than many had expected from Maradona even in a match Argentina only had to draw. The reply - that they had to be careful but weren't that defensive - included the point that, "it's not as if I replaced Lionel Messi with a defender". (Messi was withdrawn for Carlos Tevez in the 87th minute.)
It was disingenuous. He'd earlier replaced attacking wideman Ángel Di María with full back Fabián Monzón, and with ten minutes to go brought Gonzalo Higuaín off for defensive midfielder Bolatti. The fact that Bolatti ended up scoring the winner doesn't change the fact that, yes Diego, those are defence-minded changes. One suspicion is that it wasn't Maradona calling the shots at all, but Carlos Bilardo, the manager when Maradona's side won the World Cup in 1986.
Bilardo spent most of the second half watching the game from just in front of the tunnel. He came in at the same time as Maradona in a remarkably ill-defined 'Co-ordinator of National Teams' role which many felt would mean he was the insurance policy to steer the team to South Africa in the event of something unthinkable happening. Such as, say, Maradona proving to be a less than brilliant football manager.
The safety-first changes certainly carried Bilardo's hallmark, and the heated on-pitch atmosphere of the match was perfectly suited for the man who once screamed at a club doctor treating an injured opponent: "What are you doing?! Don't help him! The enemy must be stamped upon! Stamp on him!" Indeed, although Uruguay's Martín Cáceres was the only player sent off, when giving away the free-kick that led to Argentina's goal, Gabriel Heinze should have gone two minutes earlier for a horrible tackle.
If Bilardo's hand really was behind Argentina's gameplan on Wednesday night - and if it wasn't, Maradona has become a dramatically more cynical tactician since the debacles against Brazil and Paraguay last month - it would be an irony, because Bilardo's involvement was one of the things the manager was thought to be unhappy about prior to the finale. During a training session last week Maradona wandered over to the press pack and announced that whether they qualified or not, he'd be talking to AFA President Julio Grondona after the Uruguay match because, "after [I took the job], things happened which I didn't like..."
Those "things" include Grondona's refusal to allow Maradona to take on Oscar Ruggeri as his assistant. Ruggeri is a former Argentina captain as a player, but a serial underachiever in management, and appointing him was a step too far even for Grondona. But no matter what the points of argument, Grondona - as I've said before on this site - doesn't sack managers. If Maradona is going to go (and I don't think he will just yet), it will be of his own free will. And how many Soccernet readers think he would do so in a quiet and dignified manner?
For all the managerial gossip, though, it's easy to overlook that the players went into the highest pressure game of their entire qualifying campaign on Wednesday night, and came through it with a good performance, a clean sheet and their first goal in a competitive match away to Uruguay in over 30 years. It mitigated Maradona's decision to bring more domestically-based players into the squad, claiming they would have more hunger than the players who had got into the mess in the first place.
He was right to some extent. Gonzalo Higuaín, though based in Europe, finally made his senior debut against Peru, and scored the first goal. Juan Sebastián Verón was universally praised by the Argentine press for his performance against Uruguay ("calm amidst the madness" was the gist of the reports), but was the most critical of both his own and the team's situation after qualification had been assured.
One of the Europe-based players who has largely escaped criticism, Martín Demichelis, was man-of-the-match on Wednesday night and some in the Argentine press feel that we might have witnessed his graduation to the level of centre back the selección has missed since Roberto Ayala's international retirement. The fact that both winning goals - Martín Palermo against Peru and Bolatti against Uruguay - were scored by domestic players is ironic as well, because there have been some commentators lamenting the declining standard of the Argentine championship in the last year or two.
Bolatti arrived to training back at his club, Huracán, to a hero's welcome on Thursday, though the atmosphere is more of relief for the national side as a whole. But Maradona's talk, and the behind-the-scenes uncertainty, ensure that the mood isn't overly jubilant. What Maradona does next is anyone's guess, but Argentines won't take anything for granted when their team fly to South Africa next June. And no-one who has followed them through it will forget their 2010 qualifying campaign in a hurry.