That other Albiceleste, also twice World Cup winners, pose an interesting predicament. They possess two individuals who some claim to be the greatest footballer of all time—unfortunately one of them is their cuddly-but-clueless coach Diego Maradona.
At the helm since late 2008, El Diego is undeniably a cult-like figure, commanding the respect of the nation and theoretically of his footballing charges as well. However, under Maradona La Selección stumbled badly through qualification—they equalled the worst defeat in their history, falling 6-1 away to Bolivia (blaming the altitude, despite backing Andean nations a year before when FIFA tried to ban high-altitude matches) and their hopes of qualifying hung in the balance until a 2-1 victory against Peru in their final match. That was when 57 year-old Boca Juniors striker Martin Palermo scored a last gasp winner in the torrential rain, prompting the now-famous Diego penguin-slide celebration featured above. El Diego hasn’t forgotten Palermo’s heroics—he’s seemingly been included in the side as some sort of talismanic mascot. It’s hard to see why else he’s come along (except to see the South African sights!) as he is slow, mono-faceted, and competing for a place with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Kun Agüero—all strikers on whom he’s got nothing except years. But, see, he scored this goal in the rain!!! Maradona hasn’t exactly distinguished himself with his formulaic selection policies; he’s called up more than 120 players since taking charge, utilizing a learn-by-doing approach to tinkering with his squad. Controversially, his final 23-man list didn’t contain seriously-in-form midfield schemers Javier Zanetti or Esteban Cambiasso, who both excelled in Inter Milan’s recent march to Champions League & Scudetto glory. A high-level ego spat has also seen 2006’s star performer Juan Roman Riquelme pushed into international retirement, replaced by Juan Sebastian Verón in the role of unmoved midfield mover.
Perhaps tactictal nous isn’t required when you have the current best player in the world (only demented Madrid fans and nativist freak Rooney-devotees question this) in the form of Lionel Messi. La Pulga Atomica was otherworldly this season, scoring 47 goals in all competitions, many of them exceedingly easy on the eyes. Despite his La Liga-based heroics, Messi has yet to really distinguish himself in an Argentina shirt…and one has to imagine he is itching to do just that. Final doffs of the editorial hat to the world’s best number-five (the traditional, Argentina-style midfield lynchpin) Javier Mascherano and 22 year-old fantasista/Benfica sensation Ángel de María. The Argies are being tipped by many to hoist the cup this year, but will it be because or in spite of their legendary skipper?
The South Koreans have actually qualified for the last six World Cups, famously making a dubious run to the semi-finals in 2002. The national team didn’t win itself many new fans as the co-hosts back in ’02, when their combination of extreme dirtiness and FIFA-backed refereeing leeway saw them unfairly dump both Italy and Spain out of the cup. I frankly can’t remember much of their performance in 2006, except that they drew with France and lost out to Switzerland in the qualifying stages? Perhaps their most successful appeal for the support of neutrals this time around could be: We’re Not North Korea!!!
Analyzing the clip above, I’m struck by the lack of pace and mobility in the squad. Not pictured is their captain and undisputed leading talent, Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung. He’s the driving creative force behind the team, and likely to play provider for Monaco’s no-nonsense finisher Park Chu-Young. I am admitting to a lack of editorial curiosity about the South Koreans—any loyal supporter-correspondents feel free to write in with more nuanced thoughts!
Another team I am hoping doesn’t qualify making things interesting in Group B are the Greeks. They’ve only qualified for the World Cup once before, back in 1994, and they’ve never won a match there. ’94 also found them sharing a group with Nigeria and Argentina, and they are likely to have relive the memories of losing to both here in 2010. In stark contrast to their government’s fiscal policies, Greece is known for their well-organized and extremely conservative approach. They’re led into battle by coach Otto Rehhagel, who shocked and bored Europe in 2004 when Greece won the European Championship.
As a tactician, Rehhagel is famous for advancing the theory of kontrollierte Offensive (controlled offense)—sounds aesthetically inspiring, does it not, prospective spectator?! Many of the “stars” of that generation are still fixtures of the Greek squad, but hopefully Rehhagel is pursuing a tactical rethink after failing to win a game in the 2008 Euros. Don’t hold out too much hope, however, as he’s recently been plying a 4-3-3 schema that might also be termed 7-at-the-back Endlessly Heading Balls Away. Jesus wept. However, renewed success with such limited resources might just kick off a Rehhagel-for-Greek Minister of Finance campaign.
It’s tempting to recycle chunks of Nate’s African Cup of Nations breakdown of the Naija Super Eagles, but add that expectations are YET LOWER due to the absence of Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel with a knee injury. This fan report from the Guardian says it all, really: I Fear the Worst. Another disappointing casualty to injury is Ikechukwu Uche, a player I remember fondly from his free scoring days at Recreativo Huelva! The Nigerians can boast a semi-formidable strikeforce in the form of Yakubu (though he’s lightyears from being in-form), Obafemi Martins, and the ageless Nwanko Kanu (seriously, how old is Kanu? NO ONE KNOWS!!!).
In the absence of Mikel (who plays a much more offensive role for Nigeria than his MakeleleLite™ duties at Chelsea) the midfield creativity will be in the hands of Lokomotiv Moscow’s Peter Odemwingie, who impressed at the African Cup of Nations (when he wasn’t mangling various joints on the spongy and poorly-laid Angolan turf). Perhaps holding midfielder Dickson Etuhu, with knowledge gained from master man-manager Roy Hodgson and Fulham’s run to European near-glory, can provide some much needed on-field leadership?
The quality (or lack thereof) of African goalkeepers has been a recurring meme, particularly after the komedy kapers witnessed at CAN ’10 in Angola, but Nigeria have a fairly reliable shot-stopper in Vincent Enyeama (though his positional sense is NOT great). He was recently linked with a move to Arsenal (insert joke about what being a prospective Gunners keeper sez about one’s reliability in goal). Enyeama recently spoke out against the Jabulani, the ultra-aerodynamic official tournament ball, and after tipping away a supernaturally dipping shot noted he was “sure an angel was protecting me, otherwise, that would have been a goal”. Will there be a preponderance of angels at this World Cup, or will we witness the goalkeeping atrocities we bore witness too back in January in Angola? Rather than angels, I think what Nigeria need to succeed is some rather more terrestrial concentration at the back. Joseph Yobo and Danny Shittu, neither of them brilliant but both adequate professional centerbacks, have pulled some Keystone Cops-type shit in the past. Hopefully pragmatic Swedish gaffer Lars Lagerback has adequately drilled his defense. If so, the Naija boys have a healthy chance of qualifying out of the group.
••• Official BOLAS & BANDEIRAS Qualifying Picks: Argentina, Nigeria
Robinho has recently revealed that the loan-return to his boyhood Brazilian team, Santos, required a rebuff of not only Manchester City, but also Barcelona. That Robinho would turn down offers from two of the richest clubs in the world to return to São Paolo is perhaps simply a testament to the extent of his own disgruntled relationship with European football. But I personally hope that Robinho’s move is also a sign of the growing economic strength of South American leagues.
Robinho’s choice was certainly, at least partially a sentimental one, with the added benefit of convenience (as well as climatic considerations?):
I had an offer from Barcelona, but they wanted to bring me in on a transfer and Manchester City didn’t want to sell me. Then they wanted me on a loan deal but it wouldn’t have been good to take my whole family, look for a house and be there only six months. It’s different in Santos, since here I have a house and all the rest.
Having failed to establish himself as Man City’s first-choice striker, Robinho chose his homeland as the place to maintain his fitness and solidify his position in the national team in the lead-up to the World Cup.
In doing so, Robinho added his name to an impressive list of top-tier, world-class players who have shunned European leagues in favor of playing in their homeland. Adriano, Ronaldo, Riquelme, and J.S.Verón (and to a maybe lesser extent, Vagner Love) can all (arguably) be counted among the world’s best players, and are all playing in for South American teams. Verón’s story is particularly nice: after 11 years in Europe, he returned to his boyhood club, Estudiantes de la Plata, and led them to win the Argentinian Apertura in 2006 and the Copa Libertadores in 2009. The 34-year-old midfielder also won the South American Player of the Year award in 2008 and 2009.
It may just be a coincidence that the aforementioned list of heavyweights are all playing back in their native lands, but it is heartening that in a year in which big money has been such a central force in European soccer, the modest economic liquidity of South American leagues can acquire such quality players.
On an absolutely opposite note, it is also somehow great to see erstwhile Boca Juniors mystical forward, the pseudo-Krsna-locked Rodrigo Palacio scoring this diving header for Genoa.
How long until a spat with the manager, lack of good steak in Genoa, and/or the rising financial strength of the Argentinian league drive him back to Buenos Aires?