Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Mundial: Argentina

Argentina Unsure if It Should Dream

BUENOS AIRES, June 3 — Argentina last won a World Cup in 1986, when it was led by the extraordinary Diego Maradona. Since then, the performance of the blue-and-whites has been as melancholy as a tango lyric: they were the runners-up in 1990, failed to reach the semifinals in 1994 and 1998, and were shockingly eliminated in the first round in 2002.

So Argentine fans can be excused for looking with trepidation toward this Cup, which starts Friday in Germany. Is their rebuilt team, with its new coach and younger players, the legitimate contender it seems to be? Or should they be steeling themselves for more heartbreak and disillusionment?

Soccer here has always been played and analyzed with uncommon passion. Argentina has won the World Cup twice and finished second on two other occasions. And the run-up to this year's World Cup has been no different. A coaching change was made midstream, there have been injuries to key players and, most recently, a heated (and typical) debate has erupted about some players chosen for the squad and about some left off.

"It's the famous Argentine taste for drama," said Ezequiel Fernández Moores, a popular Argentine sports and political commentator. "We like to cry a lot and to play the role of victims, and we always need to convoke demons from outside to explain our failures, not just in football but in everything else."

Especially galling for Argentina's fans is that their squad's decline has coincided with the dominance of their archrival, Brazil. While Argentina agonizes over its inability to find a successor to Maradona, whose private life has become a soap opera of its own, Brazil continues to manufacture crack players, and thrashed Argentina, 4-1, in a Confederations Cup match last year.

As in 2002, when a loss to England was a decisive factor in Argentina's early exit, there has been much grumbling that Argentina has been singled out for unfair treatment by being seeded in a "group of death" while Brazil was favored with an easier draw. To advance, Argentina will have to get past a strong Dutch team and two other potentially dangerous squads — Ivory Coast (its first opponent, on Saturday) and Serbia and Montenegro.

"Even then, if we win our group, as a reward we will play three days later in the group of 16," said Leo Farinella, editor of the sports daily Olé. "We don't have the luck of the others, who have weaker adversaries and can rest for five days between the two phases."

After the repeated disappointments of the past 20 years, modest objectives have been set for Argentina in this year's Cup. Argentina's squad is deep and is likely to include such standouts as Juan Román Riquelme, a shrewd passer, and Carlos Tevez, who led the Brazilian league in goals last season. But that has not prevented management from poor-mouthing the team's chances.

"I will be satisfied if Argentina makes it to the final eight," Julio Grondona, the longtime president of the Argentine Football Association, said in a radio interview last month. "There is no obligation to come back champions," he added, and anyone who argues otherwise "has no sense of the game."

Fans and commentators have complained that the bar has been set far too low; some say the team is good enough to reach an all-South American final against Brazil. But some veteran insiders have argued that playing down Argentina's chances is an intelligent strategy that will guarantee a better result.

"Brazil is accustomed to being favorites, but we Argentines are not," Daniel Passarella, who coached the national team in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, told reporters recently. "If we are a strong candidate, we believe it and we relax."

Since becoming coach of the team late in 2004, José Pekerman has undertaken what can only be called a full-fledged purge. From the team that performed so embarrassingly in Asia, only Juan Pablo Sorín and Roberto Ayala remain as starters, and of the 23 players Pekerman named to his squad last month (after auditioning a remarkable 49), 16 emerged from the junior teams that he coached.

"The reality of the Argentine football player in the world today is one of being quite overshadowed," Pekerman, 56, said a month before taking over the team. "On the majority of the big European teams, you don't find Argentines."

Pekerman's own trajectory is an unusual one for Argentina. Never a star player himself, he left soccer after his playing days and worked as a taxi driver before returning as a coach.

As coach of the national junior team, Pekerman had a spectacular run, winning three world championships in the under-21 category. But this is his first World Cup as a head coach, and he has proceeded cautiously — too cautiously for some fans and commentators who say he is leaving some of his best scorers on the bench and is sticking with a goalie, Roberto Abbondanzieri, who tends to become porous in the clutch.

"Pekerman has had a good track record, but he has no defined style of play," said Gonzalo Bonadeo, a popular television commentator. "One day he emphasizes the offense, the next day the defense. But Argentina needs to score goals. If your defense is weak, as ours is, then why not attack? We can't be so timid."

Ever since Maradona was disqualified for drug use in the 1994 Cup in the United States, Argentines have been yearning for a player who can dominate the field, intimidate opponents and electrify fans. At long last, they may have one: Lionel Messi, a diminutive 18-year-old who has played brilliantly for Barcelona.

"It's still early yet, but this kid has all the characteristics of a star," said Sergio Danichevsky, the longtime sports editor of Clarín, Argentina's leading daily. "He's a player who is typically Argentine in the sense that he is daring and gutsy, who in the decisive moments of the game is not going to hide, but will demand the ball."

But Argentina being Argentina, there are complications. Messi has been hobbled since March with a thigh injury, and even when he is healthy, Pekerman has been reluctant to start him or Tevez, preferring to let the slower, more conservative Riquelme dictate the rhythm of the game.

"Messi is getting better every day, but we have to wait and not rush things," Pekerman said recently. "We don't want to make mistakes, even though we know he is impatient to play. That's why we are going to evaluate whether it is better to have him play from the start or come in later."

In what fans regarded as a favorable omen, Argentina's last friendly before the start of the World Cup ended with a 2-0 victory over Angola on May 30. Messi was deemed healthy enough to play the last half hour, and the tempo of the game picked up noticeably when he came in.

"It's true that we no longer have Maradona," Bonadeo said. "But we do have four or five players of a caliber that Maradona never had around him, and if they play up to their ability, anything can happen. So let's see."


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