Argentina intends to win this World Cup.
That’s the word. On good authority too. From Buenos Aires itself, no less.
Based on Sunday’s flat and often-plodding display in a 2-1 win against Bosnia-Herzegovina, it doesn’t seem plausible. And yet, and yet … the potential is totally there.
The country is quietly confident it can and will.
It matters. It must win in Brazil to forever make it clear that Argentina is the superior soccer country in South America. We’ll show them, is the gist.
A lot of this is about tactics, formations on the field, deep thought about flow and show. Argentina is a country of university professors on the topic of how to use the pocket of space behind the two front strikers. There, people can and will draw you complex diagrams about how it is best done. I’ve seen it. It was done to me, in a steakhouse in Buenos Aires, no less. The mind, as they say, boggled. And not beautifully.
It’s the thing that divides Argentina from Brazil, as Argentina sees it.
On Sunday night, the world saw the upside and the downside to it all.
For the first half, adherence to the complex 5-3-2 formation meant that nothing happened.
Lionel Messi, the best player in the world, could have gone for a coffee and a quick call to his mom, and then returned to see if the ball was actually on its way to him yet. It wasn’t. Delayed-in-the-mail kinda thing, the Brazil/Argentina dynamic is complex. And it will be made simple and conclude in the soccer field here, the theory goes.They are neighbouring countries with much in common but wary of each other. One is Spanish-speaking, the other is Portuguese. Both are male-centric cultures, yet both have female presidents. There is extensive co-operation in trade.
In soccer, bitterness abounds. Argentina deeply resents what it sees as Brazil’s inflated reputation. There, they think of Brazil’s style of so-called beautiful play, the “joga bonito,” as unsophisticated, the artless efforts of children. In Argentina, they obsess about skill but also tactics. They talk about the “false nine,” the role of “the 10,” musing and strategizing till time stands still. To the regret of neutrals in all this, it did seem to stand still here in the Maracana stadium.
A portion on the rivalry can be encapsulated in the Maradona-versus-Pele argument. In Argentina, Diego Maradona is the world’s greatest player, ever.
Maradona is a god, a madly gifted genius from the slums of Buenos Aires. He did, after all, almost die and come back to life. Some believe he was indeed dead for a while on a surgery table and came back to life, as true gods do.
Pele? Well, when I was in Argentina a few years ago to see Argentina play Colombia in a World Cup qualifying game, I heard Pele described as “ a bag of emptiness.” Maradona, you see, is a real man, all faults, flaws and strong appetites. Who would want to hang out with Pele?
While in Argentina, my host was Carlos Pachame. Now 70, Pachame had a lengthy career as a player and manager in Argentina and other countries. He played for Estudiantes in the 1960s, and Argentina’s national team. He later managed Estudiantes and was, famously, part of the coaching staff of Carlos Bilardo, who was in charge when Argentina won the World Cup in 1986. It was Bilardo who fetishized the 5-3-2 system to perfection (a system developed at Estudiantes), making perfect use of Maradona by building a fluid structure of overlapping wing players at the back, to move forward, the aim being to feed the ball to Maradona at that precise place where he could blossom.
Last week, I contacted Pachame and asked for his views in this World Cup and Argentina’s expectation. His English isn’t as good as it used to be, but his meaning is clear. “I find all the batteries that will be a good World Cup for us. Germany is a difficult team to beat, Spain is not the same as last World Cup, but strong. And then the silver, the runner-up, is Brazil. For me, Argentina will certainly be in the last four. It seems to me, because Brazil is inspired at home, they may delete them all, the others.”
“But no guarantee of that. Italy, Belgium, Portugal will also be inspired. Good players, some of the best, in those teams. There’s always a surprise. But my boys, they never compromise. They have the spirit of 1986, I think. Bilardo’s spirit. Something to prove, that we are the best. No Maradona. But we have Messi. Maybe at the end, Messi is the crushing of Brazil.”
I take his words seriously. Argentina is immensely talented. But there is a gulf between the deep thought on tactics and the toughness of mind to win on the field. There were glimpses of greatness in the second half when the 5-3-2 thing was abandoned.
After Sunday’s match, in the world outside, the Brazil/Argentina thing is a choice between thrilling play and tedium. One wins, the other doesn’t. Time for Argentina to do deep thinking about that, now.