Sunday, September 4, 2011
Messi show arrives in India
This was a match full of ironies. Four kids from Kolkata's labyrinthine slums led out Lionel Messi and Argentina in an initiative arranged by Save the Children. But with the cheapest ticket priced at 700 Rupees (£10), working-class and lower middle-class Indian fans were effectively excluded.
The Yuba Bharathi Krirangan in Salt Lake can seat 120,000 and has often been packed for the local derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, but even with thousands of complimentary passes being given out, it was more than a third empty.
Not that Argentina minded. The roars of approval each time Lionel Messi, handed the captain's armband for the first time, touched the ball would have drowned out anything heard at La Bombonera or El Monumental in Buenos Aires.
Alejandro Sabella, after his first game as coach, joked that maybe they should take the fans back home to Argentina. Having failed miserably in front of their home crowds at the Copa America in July, this was a first step on the road to redemption and it helped that they were playing in front of an adoring, uncritical audience. Otherwise, half the side that coasted in Messi's super-skilled slipstream would have felt the heat.
The broadcaster had promised a "Messi-merising" show, while billboards welcomed the 'Gods of Football' to the city. Any way you looked at it, it was cringeworthy hyperbole. Argentina haven't won a trophy of note since the back-to-back Copa America successes under Coco Basile (1991 and '93). As for Venezuela, who were missing the excellent Juan Arango on Friday night, they remain the only South American nation never to qualify for a World Cup.
Not that any of that mattered. For Kolkata, only Messi seemed to. More than 2000 waited outside the airport to greet him when he arrived in the early hours of Wednesday morning and the Hyatt Regency where the team stayed was stalked by fans at all hours. Sightings of Messi around the hotel pool inspired an entire front-page article in the Hindustan Times and a nonchalant back-volley at the end of Thursday's practice session had the watching press pack in raptures.
This game, and Tuesday's match against Nigeria in Dhaka, give Sabella his only chance to work with the European-based stars. For the twin friendlies against Brazil in September that set the stage for a marathon World Cup qualifying campaign, he will field only those playing in Argentina. That contingent includes Juan Roman Riquelme, 33, and Juan Sebastian Veron, now 36.
The game against Venezuela, won with a near-post header from Nicolas Otamendi, the Porto centre-back, off a Messi corner, illustrated just why Sabella has been forced to go back to Dad's Army. Javier Mascherano shielded the back four with his usual tenacity, while Ricardo Alvarez, recently transferred from Velez Sarsfield to Internazionale, and Lucho Gonzalez, now with Marseille, were expected to do the prompting.
Lucho started nervously, misplacing several passes on the artificial turf, while Alvarez barely showed. Messi, with no Andres Iniesta or Xavi Hernandez to ping perfect passes his way, was forced to drop deeper and deeper in search of the ball. Gonzalo Higuain put in a decent shift as the man up top, but is no Gabriel Batistuta. Apart from a first-time volley that clipped the bar after a delightful chipped ball from Messi, he endured a frustrating evening before being replaced by Manchester City's new darling, Sergio Aguero.
Otamendi and Martin Demechelis, without the brain fades that blighted his time at Bayern Munich, had good games at the heart of the defence, but Marcos Rojo was frequently exposed at left-back. Venezuela created all their best chances down that wing, and had Frank Feltscher, Saloman Rondon or Nicolas Fedor been more clinical, the Messi-adoring crowd would have been silenced.
For all the quality that they possess in attack - Di Maria had a fine game, combining beautifully with Messi on more than one occasion - Argentina lack the type of player that Sabella used to be. English fans of a certain age may remember him from his spells at Sheffield United and Leeds, but it was at River Plate that he made his name as a sedate (think Riquelme) midfielder with an eye for a pass. In Norberto Alonso's shadow at River, Independiente's Ricardo Bochini also eclipsed him in that era. What Argentina wouldn't have given to have one of them in the current squad.
The organisers spent 220 million Rupees (£3 million) to arrange this friendly, and it made you question Indian football's priorities, after a 15-month period that has seen two of the country's best-known clubs - Mahindra United and JCT Phagwara - shut up shop on account of lack of interest in the domestic game.
Rich Indians and those of Indian origin have been buying clubs in England (Blackburn Rovers) and Spain (Racing Santander), but once Messi and the rest of the Albiceleste fly home, it will be back to second-class status for football in India. Enjoy the front pages while you can.