Thursday, October 15, 2009


Last-Chance Legends

It was a dramatic World Cup qualifying day in South America, with Argentina scraping into the direct qualification places at the last gasp with a 1-0 away win over...Uruguay. The Charruas thus go into their third successive cross-confederation playoff, while Diego Maradona avoids the humiliation of being the first Albiceleste coach to fail to make the big event since 1970.

The World Cup would be much the poorer for the absence of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano et al., and most neutrals (not to mention the South African organisers) no doubt breathed a sigh of relief at the news. And it would have been pretty ridiculous, in truth, had the winner of Bahrain v. New Zealand made it to South Africa while Argentina missed out.

I watched some of the game this morning, and it was, well, ugly. Time and space on the ball was at an absolute premium, and dangerous tackling was rife. Derbies are rarely easy on the eye, and the desperate circumstances of the game rendered this particular battle of the Rio de la Plata a true slugfest.

But qualification is one thing, the World Cup proper quite another. And Maradona can perhaps take some heart from recent history, in which a shaky qualifying campaign can be the harbinger of an eventual triumph...especially where South American teams are concerned.

Take the World Cup that Maradona himself dominated, in 1986. After a smooth start in the prelimiaries, Argentina slumped to a 1-0 loss in Peru and had to come from behind to draw with the same opponents in their final home game. Had they lost, they would have been forced into a playoff.

Then there's Brazil. The Sele├žao's two recent World Cup triumphs, in 1994 and 2002, were both achieved despite very patchy form in the qualifying tournament. In the former campaign, under Carlos Alberto Parreira, they started with only one win in four games, before coming home strongly. Still, had they lost their final qualifier against Uruguay, they were out, and it was only the return of Romario, absent in previous games, that did the damage that day.

In the midst of the 2002 qualifiers, I vividly remember various Australian fans toying with the idea of a playoff with Brazil, which looked more than likely at one time. As it happened, Australia had an indirect influence on events in any case, since it was the Socceroos' victory over an under-strength Brazil at the 2001 Confederations Cup that precipitated the removal of Emerson Leao as Brazil coach...and the appointment of Luiz Felipe Scolari. The rest is history (or, in Scolari's case, self-promotion).

By way of comparison, Argentina have qualified for the past three World Cups with contemptuous ease, yet failed to progress beyond the quarter-finals. This despite the magnificently-credentialled sides they have possessed, particularly in 2006, when it seemed that all of Jose Pekerman's diligent youth development work was about to bear rich fruit. It may yet do so in 2010, whether Maradona is in charge or not.

And spare a thought for Uruguay's opponents in the CONMEBOL/CONCACAF playoff, Costa Rica. The Ticos were headed for South Africa after taking a 2-0 lead over their hosts the USA; after pulling one back eighteen minutes from the close, the Americans equalised in the fifth minute of injury time to send Costa Rica into fourth place in the section, and a date with the Uruguayans.

It's also kind of reminded me of Argentina's 1994 WCQ campaign.

Huge panic after losing at home 5-0 to Colombia and being forced into the playoffs with us (although they really should've played off with the other group runners-up Bolivia first to decide CONMEBOL's third team). Come USA '94 however, they were looking like eventual winners and playing superb football until...well everything that happened.

I just wonder who could clean up the mess that Argentina is right now to be in serious contention for South Africa. There is a lot of crap, a lot of tactical thinking and a lot of selections and non-selections that need to be corrected.
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