Want to know what keeps Brazilian football chiefs awake at night? It’s the thought of their bitter rivals Argentina running around the Maracana with a gleaming gold trophy in their hands. The idea of another let-down on home soil, some 64 years after Uruguay did likewise, is a scenario that nobody wants at Confederacao Brasileira de Futebol (CBF) Headquarters in Barra da Tujica.
They’re wise to be wary and not only because the current civil unrest around the World Cup may spark off further problems if Brazil fail to perform in the competition. Argentina’s record in Latin America is impressive. In fact, they have won the last two competitions held in that region: 1978 and 1986.
There have been six tournaments in Latin America and Argentina have won two and finished runners-up in another. Although they failed to qualify for 1970 and refused to qualify for 1950, only once – 1962 in Chile – have they failed to reach the final. So the climate clearly suits them!
The failure that haunts Messi
There’s one very good and obvious reason why this could be Argentina’s year, however: Lionel Messi. Argentine World Cup history has been dominated by Diego Maradona – even when they won their hosted competition in 1978, the post-event talk was of the young player that [controversially] didn’t get included in the squad. Argentina’s fortunes rested with D.A.M until 1994 and since then, they have promised much and delivered little. The baton was passed to Messi, arguably the world’s number one or two, but he has yet to sparkle in the World Cup, a source of great frustration for the Barcelona legend.
Messi was included in the 2006 squad as an 18 year-old and although he didn’t start the tournament, he was part of the team by the time Argentina were eliminated at the quarter-final stage. In 2010, he was firmly established, but once again, Argentina went out in the last eight, again to Germany. Apart from an Olympic gold medal from the 2008 games, Messi has not won a major honour with his country, not even a Copa America.
He’s arguably at his peak, so 2014 may be his best opportunity of stealing the show. In another four years, he will be 30. Historically, the dominant player at a World Cup tournament has been in his mid –to-late 20s, but since 2002, the Golden Ball winner has been in his 30s. But this has more to do with a lack of natural successors to the throne. Diego Forlan (31), Zinedine Zidane (34) and Oliver Kahn (33) have won the award since 2002, but in recent years, we have seen players like Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo emerge at the top of the game. No single player has dominated a recent World Cup like Pele, Maradona and Cruyff. If Messi is going to do it, Brazil 2014 will be his stage.
One man band?
Argentina are not a one man team, although it does help to have a rare talent in your ranks. There’s no doubting they have strength in attack, but do they have enough in other departments to be a credible contender?
Alex Sabella (remember him from Sheffield United and Leeds in the late 1970s?) has an embarrassment of riches up front. Sergio Aguero is a tremendous player and could be one of the stars of the tournament. Gonzalo Higuain may have opted out of Real Madrid for the relative backwater of Napoli (whoever would have thought Serie A would ever be regarded so lightly?), but he is a top-class striker who can make a name in Brazil. And then there’s Ezequiel Lavezzi, who has impressed with Paris St. Germain this season, but may not get a starting place. But with a front line of Aguero, Messi and Higuain, Argentina will be very potent – and there’s no room for Carlos Tevez, despite the pleas for his inclusion. Actually, it’s crazy that Sabella won’t take a player who, despite the baggage, performs outstanding at every club he plays.
The key man could be Angel Di Maria, who can make Argentine really tick in midfield. He’s a busy player, possessing speed and stamina. And he’s having the best season of his career at Real Madrid. When Di Maria and Messi click, you might see the most lethal partnership in Brazil 2014.
History tells us…
That any Argentine World Cup campaign is rarely dull. There’s always a drama or two. In a predictable world, Lionel Messi will be one of the stars, will take Argentina through to the latter stages and might even win the big prize. But it’s Argentina. In 1978, Cesar Luis Menotti’s team of young cavaliers slalomed their way to victory (that’s how Mario Kempes played, just watch him again…). In 1982, they went out amid recriminations. In 1986, Maradona swept them to victory, but four years later, they snarled their way through to a rematch with Germany, playing anti-football. They reached the last four in 1990, but since then, have flattered to deceive. It’s time they put in a shift again.
They topped the CONMEBOL qualifying competition, losing just two of their 16 games in what was an arduous campaign. Messi scored 10 of Argentina’s 32 goals and Higuain accounted for nine. In Brazil, they will face a potentially tricky Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. They should win the group and that will pitch them up against maybe Ecuador or Switzerland. If they do top their group, they could meet Brazil in the last four, and that would be interesting.
Game of the People predicts: A sleepless night for Brazil…