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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

World Cup Fever!

I’ve got World Cup Fever!!!!… Last night I started thinking about the World Cup to come in 2006…..getting all- you know- excited------it may have been my subconscious operating; the first batch of tickets for Germany 2006 went on sale last week…. I may finally be able to begin the healing process vis a vis Argentina’s 2002 World Cup debacle..I don’t know if it is possible to ever fully put something like that behind…but the mere fact I’m writing about it shows I’m healthier than in a long time!… Argentina came into the World Cup 2002 as clear favorites (along with France) and bowed out in the first round including a humiliating 1-0 defeat at the hands of arch nemesis England…To give you an idea of the triumphalism that permeated Argentine society you could not go far before the Cup started without seeing graffiti reading “Argentina Campeon del Mundo 2002”…the country was in the throes of what I think qualifies as a great depression.. unemployment was at 25%...including underemployment the figure got closer to 40%...the entire country, including me, was consumed by the silly idea that even though we were a disaster in just about everything of any importance whatsoever all would be made good again/somehow justified by Argentina winning the World Cup…we would show the world: yes we may not be able to pay off our debts but we can win the World Cup! The rest as they say is history. .the team crashed and burned… Some of the seeds were planted at least six months earlier when I awoke, much like the entire country, to watch the World Cup draw at some ungodly hour like 5 am only to see Argentina included in the same group as England, Nigeria and Sweden... (our reward for our stellar qualifying campaign- THANKS FOR NOTHING FIFA!) at that point I knew things were going to be rough….the pressure on the players to win the entire thing could not have helped… nothing short of winning would be enough…. the country needed and demanded it…for some reason the Stallone movie “Victory” runs through my head…life is not the movies…but it’s a hard lesson to learn..

Argentina came into the World Cup having seemingly obliterated the competition in the qualifying phase which for the South America region consists of home and away games against all other teams…in other words something like 22 games over two years…. In any case, looking superficially at the numbers it sure seemed like Argentina was kicking major booty.. It sure seemed like Argentina should win the world cup but the numbers hid, as they often do, some disquieting realities….

first: dominating your region, when your region is typified by a certain style of play, does not mean you will dominate the world…. Argentina may have been the best South American side during qualifying but how good is South American soccer? Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador and Argentina's 2002 World Cup performances make me conclude: NOT THAT GOOD..… only Brazil (more on these pesky rats later) played well and of course .. as much as it pains me to admit.. won…seemingly out of nowhere… so… Argentina dominated a group with low level? Affirmative..that is my conclusion..we may have beat everyone during qualifying but in reality we beat nobodies….

second: argentina may have been very good at playing against “south American” style teams.. but this did little to prepare for an opening round with two northern European foes and an African team….in fact when you win 20 or so games playing in one style it reinforces the idea that if you keep playing that way you will win..furthermore, and no one in argentina wanted to admit this, while the team was “winning” many of the victories were a lot closer than they appeared to be.. in other words the reality that we barely won some matches or won while displaying poor form became lost.. I can’t remember the entire qualifying process. But I remember a game in Bolivia where argentina was down 3-1 and tied it 3-3 with two miraculous goals very late in the second half.. or a game against brazil in argentina where brazil was outclassing us and we tied it 1-1 towards the end on another miracle goal.. the signs were there that even the argentine pre world cup dominance was not all it was cracked up to be…but of course when luck is breaking your way you don’t think its luck but rather skill and great coaching!..

third: argentina head coach bielsa decided everything was going great and locked himself into a scheme regarding both strategy and players..since argentina was easily crusing through qualifying and the local press, international press and population were completely enamored of the team he decided there was no need to change or evolve… and that meant he took his eye off the ball….because had he been looking he would have seen one clear thing: his number one guy- the team engine- VERON was choking…. The pressure on this man who had carried the team during the first half of qualifying and stormed into Manchester United (hey even I bought his Man U jersey) with some phenomenal playing had built and built and somehow his game began to suffer.. his playing in Man U became lackluster..i think the brits would say his “form” suffered..but of course Veron was the guy that was supposed to carry the team.. and Bielsa failed to anticipate- his job- that Veron has lost his form….Veron was a non factor in the world cup….his passing was particularly ineffectual.. he lost his confidence and has never recovered…he went from Man U to Chelsea and then was I think lent or traded back to an Italian club where he is currently trying to find his way…. My point is: when you have the team built around a scheme that depends on one player for its creativity/spark and that guy loses it your team is going to suffer… But Bielsa’s failure to adjust- a 4 year cycle between Cups is a long time and players' level of play can come and go- cost Argentina dearly and more than just Veron as i will elaborate further... in all fairness however its not unusual for coaches to get locked in..

four: other Bielsa decisions come to mind.. one resembles the decision regarding Veron: Batistuta… now Bielsa knew Bati from the days he managed Newells (Bati’s came through Newells lower divisions) and they obviously have a tight relationship but why Bielsa insisted on having Bati be the starting center forward and refused to consider having two center forwards is something I will never understand.. when Crespo was on the bench.. Crespo before the 2002 world cup was a younger and more importantly hungrier player…. Bati was already on the downhill slalom of his career…. But Bati had scored over 35 goals for the Argentine side and most Argentines wanted him to get the starting nod.. still, it was a mistake and we saw this during the three games…the only goal Bati scored came off of his ear!!!!!!!! ..although more on this later since when a striker ain't striking its prudent to look at the midfield (eh, Veron?)... A miracle goal against Nigeria…. Which lulled Argentina into a false sense of overconfidence before the critical game.. the one that fittingly decided it all…..against England…Worse yet: Bielsa insisted that the players had to fit his system of 1 center forward and one wing forward instead of seeing that he had two great center forwards (cause even on the downhill slide Bati was still something to reckon with; its just that if he could have only one the choice should have been Crespo) and adapting the system to fit that reality..

I will continue but my fingers are cramping up.

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