There’s a squabble going on inside Argentina’s soccer family, at the royalty level. Haven’t heard? I’ll tell you the juicy bits.
Diego Maradona Jr., son of the late, legendary Argentina striker, went on the radio in Italy on Thursday. He had a few things to say. Mainly about Argentina’s disappointing opening-game loss to Saudi Arabia. And about his dad and Lionel Messi.
“The comparison between Messi and my dad is made by those who don’t watch or understand football. We’re talking about two different planets, but I don’t want to give up on Messi just yet,” he said, rather snippily, in defence of a dad who didn’t acknowledge his son’s existence until the young fella was 20 years old.
That’s Argentina for you. Bitterness abounds. But, are they bitter in Brazil? Are they jawing on about Neymar not being the equal of Pele? Nope, not as far as we know.
Going into this World Cup, bookies across the planet anointed Argentina and Brazil as favourites to win the tournament. Of course they did; they always do. It’s about reputation and rumour, star-power and superinflated expectation.
This time, maybe the inflated-expectation adage applies to Argentina, and Brazil not so much. The five-time World Cup champions look like real contenders again.
Yes, it’s fair to say that it is about time that one of South America’s powerhouse teams put its stamp on the tournament, and all will hail the flair and finesse of the beautiful game as it should be played. No more European donkey-work and painstaking tactics.
Until this World Cup began unfolding, that aspiration could, as usual, be dismissed as jejune. Not now, with Brazil commanding the world’s gratification, after a sublime win over Serbia. Who didn’t smile with pleasure on seeing Richarlison’s score with a spectacular, lithesome volley? It brought beauty to what has sometimes seemed to be a sinister tournament. Brazil’s a team you’ll go to a pub or restaurant to watch and savour. You want to witness this.
Even the news that Brazil will be without Neymar and defender Danilo, for two matches, both out with ankle injuries, has not dampened expectations. In that victory over Serbia, Brazil started with three of the world’s best players on the bench – Gabriel Jesus, Antony and Gabriel Martinelli. This isn’t a Neymar-centric team any more (he was a difficult diva to watch at the previous World Cup), it’s all about the sheer depth of the squad waiting and wanting to play as a unit.
What you’re reading here is being written before Argentina plays Mexico on Saturday. But what’s clear even now is that Argentina is Messi-centric. He’s the fulcrum, he’s the leader of a team with several World Cup rookies unused to the pressure. That defeat to Saudi Arabia spoke volumes. What Saudi Arabia did wasn’t particularly clever or technically brilliant. It was an underdog’s spirit and resilience that worked. The Saudis were unawed, and why would they be awed? At times, Argentina’s silky but horizontal movement on the ball descended into a shambles when the opposition didn’t give up the ghost and stayed aggressive.
They do things differently in Argentina. They obsess over technique and positional play. I’ve been in Buenos Aires to cover a World Cup qualifying game and the local soccer intelligentsia will talk until they drop about “the 10”; that is, the exact positioning of the player wearing No. 10 and how he distributes the ball. Then without pause they will explain the theory of the “false-10”, a cunning ruse to fool the opposing team about the No. 10′s job. They will draw diagrams to illustrate this cunning manoeuvre. You nod in polite agreement and wonder silently if an aggressive, determined opposition might make these diagrams delusional.
In Brazil, where I have also been to cover a World Cup, they find this risible. They, too, are insular but less so these days, with an openness to the European, high-pressing game that comes with so many of its players at the top level in Europe. Flair matters most, though, and bravado. Also, the present, not the past. Brazil isn’t squabbling about old grievances, it’s going forward.