Given the players they have produced over the past two decades, there is something ludicrous about the fact that Argentina have not won a senior international tournament in 21 years – the longest drought in their history. They have, in that time, won an Olympic gold in 2004 and, between 1995 and 2007, five Under-20 World Cups. The present side, which features six players from the 2005 squad (a seventh, Gabriel Paletta, is with Italy) may deliver, but Argentina, who face Iran in their second group game on Saturday, are in danger of wasting an almost unprecedented seam of talent.
Part of the reason for the success at youth level was the work done by José Pékerman, now the manager of Colombia, and his assistant and then successor Hugo Tocalli. “It’s true we have underperformed,” said Tocalli, “and we can’t find the reasons. It’s not easy. Nobody can say that Argentina lack players. We do have great players – 2002, 2006, 2010 ... but winning the World Cup is not easy. Fitness is vital, but they can be tired and it’s difficult. Also luck, because in 2006 we were winning 1-0, had to make two forced substitutions and everything changed. I’m a fan of long-time projects, and they offer results, look at Spain, it started with the youth teams … and the same with Germany, [Jürgen] Klinsmann and then Jogi Löw, who was his assistant. Argentina has gone crazy, switching from projects very quickly, without having stability.”
Behind the trend of underachievement, of course, there are specific reasons for the failure at each World Cup. In 1994, Argentina never recovered from the shock of Diego Maradona’s positive drug test. In 1998, they were beaten in a superb quarter-final by Holland and Dennis Bergkamp’s majestic goal. In 2002, under Marcelo Bielsa, they went out in the group stage despite having won more corners and having more shots than anybody else. In 2010, a richly talented forward line was squandered by the scattergun management of Maradona.
It is 2006 that really haunts Argentina, though. By then Pékerman had replaced Bielsa as coach of the senior team and Tocalli, while running the Under-20 side, was one of his assistants. Argentina were superb in the group stage, putting six past Serbia-Montenegro, including the fabled 23-pass move finished off by Esteban Cambiasso. In the last 16 they beat Mexico – the only side they have beaten in knockout games at World Cups since 1990 without recourse to penalties – thanks to Maxi Rodríguez’s brilliant volley in extra-time. In the quarter-final, they faced Germany and led 1-0 with 18 minutes remaining when Pékerman took off Juan Román Riquelme and replaced him with Cambiasso. For many, it was the moment at which Pékerman lost his nerve and lost the World Cup.
Tocalli, though, insists it was the injuries that undid them. A minute before Riquelme was withdrawn the goalkeeper, Roberto Abbondanzieri, was forced off for Leo Franco. Seven minutes later, Pékerman also had to replace the injured Hernan Crespo. With Lionel Messi, Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola on the bench, Pékerman turned to Julio Cruz, a tall and awkward striker.
“We knew Riquelme so well, we’d had him since he was 14, when he was a No5,” said Tocalli. “We knew that if he lost three consecutive passes it was because either he was tired or had another problem. We were winning 1-0 and we were seeing that he was losing many balls, that he didn’t move as much and that his passes weren’t deep. We didn’t see the spark, he seemed tired.
“We had Cambiasso on the bench, a good ball-winner but also very technical when it came to passing the ball. So winning 1-0, we said, Cambiasso for Riquelme, we keep playing football but with more ball-winning. The same with Cruz. Why Cruz and not Messi? Because we felt that Germany were lethal in the air and we had to balance that, we thought that the only way for them to score was with headers from set-pieces. And they ended up scoring with a header but with a 40-metre long ball: nobody could have thought that.”
A minute after Cruz came on, Tim Borowski flicked on Michael Ballack’s cross and Miroslav Klose headed in at the back post. Germany went on to win on penalties and amid rumours of splits within the camp, Pékerman took the blame. Yet given that he had correctly identified the German threat and had taken measures to combat it, it could be argued he was simply unlucky.
And that, perhaps, is a truth of the World Cup. It is not a league. It is not played every year. Even the very best players rarely get more than two or three tournaments at their very peak. Argentina’s great generation has lasted longer than most but still, this is only its fifth tournament, and that means there is plenty of scope for luck to intervene.
At least this time they have a coach who is not simply trying to ram every gifted attacking player in the squad into his side. Alejandro Sabella, though, in a sense is still reaping the harvest of Maradona’s reign – and the subsequent chaos of Sergio Batista’s time in charge, when Argentina spluttered to a quarter-final exit in a home Copa América. Expectation is magnified because the recognition has dawned that the flow of talent may not go on for ever and that there is a need to take advantage now.