[Second Coming is a regular column during this football world cup dedicated to my late brother]
At the fag end of an action filled first half, almost in injury time, Argentina, which is then trailing 1-2, gets a dangerous free-kick very close to the British goal at a difficult angle. Typically, this is David Beckham territory to deliver a angled free-kick into the goal, but unfortunately, Argentina lacks any such specialists to take free-kicks from such close ranges. England sets up a strong wall of five white shirts at half the distance to make it even more difficult to execute this nail-biting free-kick.
Everybody in the crowd is expecting prolific Argentine striker, Gabriel Batistuta to take this potentially match-turning free-kick, for he is the best bet that Argentina has in its squad. As expected, Batistuta takes a long run-up and majestically sprints towards the ball, but at the very last moment simply walks over it. Then, suddenly, Juan Sebastian Veron lumbers in, close to the football and, lo and behold, doesn’t take a searing free-kick towards the goal as is expected from a dummy free-kick taker… there is more to this drama. Veron gently nudges the ball towards the right periphery of the five member English wall, much to the surprise of everybody in that stadium.
Out of nowhere walks in Javier Zenetti, who was till then hiding behind the English wall, and takes a quick turn towards an almost unprotected goal post to send a sweltering shot at the left hand top corner of the goal from almost point-blank range, leaving English goal keeper David Seaman with absolutely no chance even to move. Immediately after scoring that goal, Javier Zenetti runs towards the coaching staff and jumps over two men to give them a congratulatory hug.
This was the scene from the famous pre-quarter final match of the 1998 world cup between Argentina and England and one of the men that Zenetti hugged that night was Alejandro Sabella, who was then a field assistant to the legendary defender and the only two time Argentine champion, head coach, Daniel Passarella. It is widely believed that Sabella and Passarella devised that ingenious free-kick of 1998 which all but shattered English dreams of another world cup glory.
The same Alejandro Sabella is now the national coach of Argentina for the 2014 world cup. He probably epitomizes the tactical depth of Argentinian soccer which is seldom recognized by either the English speaking commentators or sport historians. One of the greatest contributions to the world of football by Argentina is the ability to control the pace in the midfield. If the other Latin American giant, Brazil, is known for its rhythmic Samba football, Argentina’s contribution to soccer philosophy is the alteration of pace. For a romantic, this slowness in the middle of a football pitch incarnates a world gone by, a world in which speed was a faculty of luxury and not an everyday necessity. It is indeed poetic justice that Sabella was nicknamed as Pachorra (meaning, “sloth” or “slowness”) during his playing days and is known to tactically inculcate slowness as an asset (one wonders what could he have achieved, had he the luxury of time travel to bring in Juan Roman Riquelme into this Argentinian side to control the pace of the game in the midfield; even imagining such a possibility gives Goosebumps to a football romantic in me).
It is this ability to switch between slow, almost pedestrian pace of the Argentine midfield to sudden bursts of speed that beguiled the world in the 1980s when a certain Diego Armando Maradona literally descended from soccer heaven to a football pitch in Mexico. No other individual genius has had such an impact on the world cup as Maradona did some 28 years ago, and that is also a peculiar feature of Argentine soccer philosophy – the incantation of an individual’s skills to supersede the collective work ethics of a team. Alejandro Sabella probably understands Argentinian soccer philosophy much better than any coach in the recent past, which is the primary reason why he has built his team around one man, Lionel Andrés Messi.
Can Leo Messi overcome his past inability to perform with his national team at the same level as he does every week at Barcelona is the question that the world is awaiting an answer for. Talent does as it can, but genius does what it must. Will Messi just be another great soccer talent or will he rise to the occasion over the next few weeks will decide the paradigm on which history shall judge him. Most importantly, what Maradona did in 1986 was to lift his very average team into a world champion by his sheer will to win, can Messi provide the same leadership to this far more talented team in 2014?
Thankfully, the world of football has undergone a metamorphosis in the last few years when we have seen the return of flair football, so clearly epitomized by the Spanish victory in the last world cup and European championship. The world is no longer held prisoner by the dirty defensive soccer philosophy of Europe characterized by long passes and deep crosses perfected by Germany and Italy. World of football is no longer about sprint athletes who can simply out run their opponents, as the beautiful game has made a comeback with short passes, flair dribbles and rhythmic build-up towards opponent territory.
A World Cup campaign is as much a chess game as it is about football. A master strategist works his pieces on the soccer pitch with the same dexterity as a chess grandmaster. Since the decline of Maradona, two opposing schools of thoughts have fought over Argentine footballing tactics; the Menottistas propagating an all-out attacking soccer as practiced by the legendary Argentine coach of 1978 vintage, César Menotti and the Billardistas believing in pragmatic football with emphasis on defensive tactics. It is perhaps due to this fight of tactics that Argentinian soccer has failed to take-off, resulting in continuing underperformance at the highest level for decades. Probably for the first time since the Maradona era, Sabella has created a team that is at peace with itself in terms of tactical balance as there seems to be a rare equilibrium in the middle of the pitch with both defensive as well as offensive equations in harmony.
Of course, Argentinian soccer’s basic instinct is attack and it does have possibly the best fire-power of the planet today, yet the soul of Albicelesete lies in the mid-field – remember that the greatest Argentinian ever, Diego Maradona, relished his attacking midfield position more than anything else. Even in 2014, Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano are the key players to the Argentinian campaign, although world media attention is riveted around Messi the magician, who himself relishes deeper build-up play as much as his role as the central striker. Thus, at the outset, Sabella may employ a straightforward 4-3-3 formation, but my own guess is that it would be more of a complex 5-2-2-1 setup for all practical purposes (from whatever I could discern of the Sabella philosophy in friendlies so far).
Messi’s positioning as the central striker in the above formation maybe a tad misleading as he would play multiple roles in this Argentinian attack, just like Diego did some 30 years ago – as an attacking midfielder, a playmaker, a central striker and even a raider from the wings at times. It is this flexibility of a total footballer like Messi which makes him a jaw-dropping prospect to watch on a footballing pitch. Such talents are bestowed on to sporting arena only once in a lifetime and it would indeed be a shame if a world-cup is not embellished with Messi around it. The Di Maria-Messi combo is something to watch out for in Brazil this summer as they seem to have developed great chemistry on the field unlike 4 years ago when Messi was feeling lonely under Maradona’s tutelage. As we witnessed briefly in the Slovenia friendly last weekend, the triangle of Messi-Aguero-Maria can possibly give us some of the most fascinating soccer over the next few weeks.
What Sabella has also forcefully emphasized are the small, amorphous diamond formations in the midfield with beautiful short passes that builds an orchestra of attack into the enemy territory. It is a pleasure to watch the Albiceleste create those breathtakingly beautiful lateral movements and those searing through passes – indeed what a contrast to the ugly axis (Italo-German) style of lofted chancy balls up in the air! In fact, this new emphasis on individual skills over and above sheer collective muscle is a welcome change for the world of soccer. This individualistic style is not limited to the attack, mind you, it is, in fact, never more interesting than in the context of Javier Mascherano who is not just a defensive holding midfielder in the centre, but plays more like a Libero. When temporarily liberated of his defensive duties, Mascherano provides the depth to Argentinian attack with his visionary passes that run like a dagger into the heart of the opposition.
Can Argentina win a world cup in the backyard of its enemy territory of Brazil and break a million Samba hearts? Will the spiritual home of soccer, The Maracana, witness history repeating itself? Will Messi achieve true greatness beyond just being the best footballer of our times? These are the questions for which we shall be seeking answers to, over the next 4 weeks, but history seems to be on the side of the Albiceleste. The only time Brazil hosted the world cup some 64 years ago in 1950, the host nation heartbreakingly lost the final to another Latin-American nation which augurs well for Argentina in 2014. A world cup was last held in this continent (South America or in South-Central America) in 1978 and 1986 (Argentina and Mexico respectively) and Argentina had won on both the occasions. Lastly and most importantly, the world of football has seen a tectonic shift in the last few years from defensive, boring, technical football towards flair football with emphasis on individual brilliance which should logically produce an Argentinian victory this summer.
As a 10 year old kid, in the good old Doordarshan days, when I was first introduced to a magician on an early morning in June 1986 by my brother, something within me changed forever. I have searched for a Maradona in every world cup since then. Those magnetic boots of a short and stout man who held on to the football like his own life. Those magical, gravity defying runs which managed to somehow miraculously miss defensive tackles of the opponents and somehow even more miraculously managed not to trip when encountered by a tackle. That ability to conjure up a wondrous pass from out of nowhere (for Burruchaga in 86 final and for Cannigia in the 1990 pre-quarters against Brazil among many others). These are stuff on which footballing fairy tales are woven around, but unfortunately Maradona’s second coming has never materialized.
Every now and then, briefly, we have been fooled by false messiahs like Ariel Ortega who beguiled us into believing, for a fleeting moment, that we are witnessing another Maradona, like say, in that famous pre-quarter final match against England in 1998. Only to later realize our folly. Today, possibly, we have the best chance of a second coming in the form of Lionel Andrés Messi. Messi has everything that Maradona had, pace, talent and skill, but I know what my brother would have said about him, “he simply doesn’t have the passion of a Maradona who could carry a horribly talentless team of 1990 vintage all the way to the Finals by his sheer will power”. Perhaps God doesn’t repeat himself. No wonder my brother left this world a few weeks after the 1998 world cup, leaving me behind with the onerous task of looking for a Second Coming.