Sunday, July 15, 2007
During the 2006 World Cup, at the place where I work, some of us were allowed to take days off to watch certain games. So the real football fans got to watch England's games from home, or the pub. Which is as it should be. Obviously, Ireland didn't qualify, so instead, I took a day off to watch Argentina - Serbia. Argentina's other group games were at night and I could watch them after work, but the Serbia game was in the afternoon. So I got up late, watched the preceding game, then settled down to watch Argentina destroy (an admittedly weakened) Serbia. It was the most exhilarating game of that World Cup for a fan of beautiful football. Argentina pressed the Serbians high up the pitch, were characteristically sharp and miserly in defence, and played the ball around in a series of short, beautiful passing moves. Riquelme - probably my favourite player in World football for the old-fashioned grace and sublime loveliness of his style - ran the game, supplemented by the constant movement of the likes of Saviola, Crespo and Rodriguez around him. Mascherano and Cambiasso patrolled midfield, snapping at the Serbians, retaining the ball impressively, shielding the Argentine backline. They scored the goal of the tournament, and one of the best goals ever scored at a World CUp. In the second-half, with the game won, Argentina brought on two young players, both of whom scored: Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi. They won 6-0. I watched the whole match in that state you sometimes reach when you realise a film is truly great or when you really love a record: it made me happy, and the awareness of this happiness meant that I felt lucky to be experiencing it. So much modern football is defensive and pragmatic, the pressure of money and demands for success mercilessly squeezing all the artistry and creativity from a game which thrives upon those qualities that it was almost a relief to witness a team devoted to playing football - and excuse this cliche - the way it should be played.
Well, Argentina may have been the best team at that World Cup, but they didn't win it. Their coach suffered a failure of nerve, and they went out on penalties to a typically fit and well organised but inferior German side in the Quarter-finals. But the promise of that team, and the fact that so many of its key members were so young, meant that their time would surely come again. They will probably be among the favourites for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But, as I write this, they are slated to play their arch-rivals Brazil in the final of the 2007 Copa America in Venezuala in approximately 25 hours. Argentina owe Brazil for a few recent results: in the final of the last Copa America, in Peru in 2005, twice Argentina led, only for an Adriano goal in the last minute of injury time to rescue Brazil, who went on to win the game on penalties. In the final of the 2005 Confederations Cup, Brazil delivered a 4-1 tonking, and there was a similar result in last years friendly at the Emirates Stadium in London where Brazil ran out 3-0 winners.
Brazil are feted throughout the World for the quality of their football, and based upon the calibre of the players the country has produced in the last decade, that seems reasonable enough. Probably the players currently reckoned to be the two best in the World are Brazilian, after all: Kaka and Ronaldinho. Add to those names this lot: Robinho, Daniel Alves, Ronaldo, Juninho, Adriano, Ze Roberto, Cicinho, Fred and Diego. But in practice, Brazil rarely play the "Joga Bonito" dreamt up by Nike's marketing department in competitive games. Instead they favour a far more pragmatic, hard-nosed approach with strong holding players protecting their defence, relying on their flair players to produce some magic from nowhere to win them matches. Those players - Robinho, Anderson and Diego so far in this Copa America tourament - can become isolated, without a supporting midfield player linking play for them, and this puts them under intolerable pressure, as the failure of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Adriano to sparkle at the last World Cup demonstrated. That the Brazilian coach, Dunga, was a holding midfield player himself, and won a World Cup in a team more respected than loved in Brazil probably hasn't helped him with the reception his team has received at home during this tournament. They have underwhelmed, scraping through most of their games - a 6 goal thumping of a Chilean side reeling from scandal aside - and were fortunate to beat an aggressive, well-organised Uruguay in the semi-final. What makes Brazil look worse is the form of their biggest South American rivals. Because at the moment Argentina look like the best side in international football, and they are playing with the sort of flair traditionally expected of the Brazilians.
They may lose in Sunday's final - Brazil have a way of getting results when it counts, Argentina a way of choking at the very worst moments, and if the Albiceleste have a weakness it may be a lack of pace in defence, just the sort of thing Robinho will be looking to exploit - but what will be remembered will be some of the football they have played. Coach Coco Basile has stayed true to the Argentinian values of football, favouring a fluid attacking line-up playing with a traditional number 10 in the form of Riquelme, who has probably been the player of the tournament. Observe this perfect pass to Lionel Messi against Peru, taking 3 defenders out of the game with a single stroke of the boot:
Riquelme has also scored 5 goals, including this finish with his weaker left foot:
And this free-kick, which he passes around the wall and inside the far post, Zico-style:
But aside from his goals and assists, Riquelme is a force for positive football when hes on the pitch. He always keeps the ball moving, he rarely - if ever - surrenders possession, he always looks for space, and he encourages his teammates to do the same. The fact that his teammates need very little encouragement is testament to their class and skill. Also to the fact that each of Argentina's front three - Riquelme, Messi and Tevez - can play as a Number 10. Their interplay has been breathtaking, each displaying vision and individual skill when required. None more than Lionel Messi, finally being given his chance in the National team after being restricted to the bench for most of the World Cup. His dribbling ability, acceleration and touch are all superb, but he has the boundless courage and confidence of youth, never ever afraid to take on an entire massed defence with the ball at his feet. He has also scored what was probably the goal of the tournament:
In the first two games of the tournament, Basile went with a traditional "Little & Large" front two of Messi and Hernan Crespo, leaving Carlos Tevez on the bench. Crespo is a centre forward of the highest class, a predator whose movement, aerial ability and eye for goal are comparable with anybody playing in his position in football today. He showed his value to his country with his goals in each of his first two games. His injury - taking a penalty kick - in the second match eventually allowed for the introduction of Tevez, and the Argentine frontline was suddenly an entirely different beast. Tevez shares Messi's dribbling skill, but is more powerful, better at holding the ball up, more direct, and more useful at pressuring defenders when he is hunting possession. The combination of Messi and Tevez running onto passes from Riquelme is a terrifying one for a defender and leads to goals like this one:
A couple of other players have been recalled to the squad and allowed the attacking line to work its magic. Juan Sebastian Veron has played in deep midfield alongside the more defensive-minded Esteban Cambiasso, and his presence is one of the key factors in Riquelme's freedom of expression. Veron takes the ball off the defense and from Javier Mascherano and drills precise long passes across the pitch or feeds Riquelme, allowing the playmaker to remain in the part of the pitch where he can do the most damage. Veron is also capable of shooting powerfully from distance, as this effort against the USA demonstrates:
However, hes never been the most solid midfielder from a defensive point of view. The return of Javier Zanetti at right-back has meant that he has never yet had to be. Zanetti works the entire right side of the pitch, racing forward to support attacks and yet somehow always positionally sound in the defensive third, allowing Veron to play his way without ever becoming a liability. Also vital in allowing the creative midfielders to work their magic has been Javier Mascherano in the holding role, the key No. 5. With the decline in Claude Makelele's game, Mascherano has rapidly developed into probably the best player in this position in the world, as his superb marshalling of Kaka during the Champions League final suggested. His anticipation and reading of the game are startlingly astute, meaning that he always seems to be in the right area of the pitch to snuff out an attack as it begins. Combine this with great stamina, thunderous tackling and the ability to keep his passes simple yet intelligent, and you have the perfect holding midfielder. Hes also begun to score goals, notching up two so far in this tournament, the first of them a beautiful finish:
Argentina's strength in depth means that there are quality alternatives to all of these players on the bench. Pablo Aimar is a great playmaker, more similar to Messi than Riquelme in his movement and touch, but with enough quality to have guided Valencia to a Spanish title a few years ago. He would be the Star player in almost any other International team, yet is reduced to guest-starring for Argentina. A role he can play to perfection :
Fernando Gago offers a more creative alternative to Mascherano, Milito and Palacio are quality strikers in the target man and pacy runner mode respectively and Lucho Gonzalez can play in more or less any position in midfield with equal effectiveness. If the team has a weakness, it is in defense. Argentina have yet to be properly tested defensively in this tournament, and Brazil would be expected to offer that test tomorrow night. Gabriel Heinze is committed and strong in the tackle, but vulnerable against pace, as is the ageing, if still commanding, Roberto Ayala. Gabriel Milito has had a poor tournament, seemingly prone to slips in concentration, something he will need to address before he finds himself facing Robinho & co.
Despite this, Argentina should really beat whatever side Brazil put out tomorrow to win the tournament. What all of the clips and words above don't really transmit is the impression of Argentina's play. The way the team moves the ball around, husbanding it jealously across the pitch in little triangles, the corners of which continually circle and wheel around one another. The absolute perfection of touch and technique. The little dribbles and back-heels and stepovers, performed with casual fluency by all of the players. The way passes are perfectly weighted, rolling with immaculate timing into the stride of a player in motion. The killer instinct in front of goal. The hunger for the ball, the constant support for the player in possession. The way they contemptuously shrug off teams who attempt to foul and bully them out of their rhythm. The tireless pressing of the other team when they have the ball. The way the scorers frequently race screaming to the bench so that the entire squad can celebrate together.
Its all been beautiful and exhilarating to watch. The only other team I've written about in such glowing terms are Brazil in 1982, and while it may be premature to rate this team alongside that one, they play with a comparable love for the beauty of the game, with a joy and a freedom missing in too much modern football. That team is remembered fondly despite never having won anything significant, and whatever the result in the final, I have a feeling this Argentina side will be similarly regarded by posterity. Joga Bonito, indeed.