The official South American Football thread

Been meaning to do this for a while, and don't think it's been done.

What better place to start than with Tim Vickery's last two columns on the beeb...

Can the Hand of God make a good fist of management?

Tim Vickery | 11:04 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

The countdown is on to Diego Maradona's first competitive game in charge of Argentina.
His team's form in warm-up friendies has been impressive - a 1-0 win away to Scotland and especially a 2-0 win away to France. But that will quickly be forgotten if Maradona is unable to steer his side confidently through World Cup qualification.
On Saturday Argentina are at home to Venezuela. On paper, at least, it looks like a comfortable start.


But then the ante is upped - 3,600 metres above sea level to La Paz, where Argentina travel to take on Bolivia on the following Wednesday. It's a trip that no team likes to take - and after that Argentina's remaining away games take them to Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay, all very difficult venues. With Brazil still to visit Buenos Aires, Argentina's place in South Africa next year is far from guaranteed. There is no doubt about it - in his new post Maradona is putting his prestige on the line.

He is by no means the first to do so with Argentina. Some of the great names of the country's glorious footballing tradition have had a go at coaching the national team, often with disappointing results.

One of the greatest of them all was perhaps the most disappointing. Adolfo Pedernera was one of the outstanding products of the golden age of Argentine football, the 1940s. Known as 'the Napoleon of football' for his strategic brilliance on the field, as a coach he took Colombia to their first World Cup in 1962. But he was unable to repeat the trick with Argentina - he was in charge when they failed to qualify for Mexico '70.

Pedernera's time in charge came when Argentina's national team was going through a confusing phase, which lasted between 1958 and '74. During this period Argentina had an extraordinary 17 different coaches plus one triumvirate. Several, like Pedernera, were veritable legends of the Argentine game. And yet the results rarely met the expectations.

The two poles of this period are highly significant; 1958 was when Argentina had a cruel encounter with reality; 1974 was when they appointed a coach who would find a way to cope with it. That 1940s golden age in Argentina ended with a players strike that forced some of the top stars abroad, especially to Colombia, where, among many others, Pedernera and Di Stefano went to further their careers. This forced the national team into isolation. Argentina refused to enter the World Cups of 1950 or 54, and stayed out of the Copa Americas of 1949 and 53. They were soon back, winning in both 55 and 57, but Italian clubs then swooped on their top players - which at that time meant that they were no longer picked by Argentina. Sivori, Maschio and Angelillo all ended up playing for Italy.

So when they came over to Sweden for the 1958 World Cup they were stepping into the unknown with an understrength team. They had little notion that in the previous decade they had fallen behind, especially in physical terms. Losing 3-1 to West Germany and 6-1 to Czechoslovakia came as a real shock, and brought it home that they were miles off the pace. How to deal with the rise of northern European football and the physical challenge that it represented - this was a question that hung over the Argentina team for years.

The 1974 World Cup showed them no closer to finding an answer. Like neighbours Uruguay and Brazil, they found their game rendered obsolete by the total football of the Dutch, who put so much pressure on the ball that the South Americans found it impossible to play at their normal rhythm. Holland beat Argentina 4-0.

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Enter Cesar Luis Menotti, the chain-smoking philosophising coach who changed the national team for ever. For a start, he got it organised, and using the carrot of staging the 1978 World Cup, he worked to make it a priority rather than a battleground for petty disputes between the major clubs.

Secondly, he made it a truly national affair, rather than a team that only represented Buenos Aires. Thirdly, he had a clear idea of how his team should play. Traditional Argentine passing football could beat the Europeans, argued Menotti - but they had to up the rhythm of their play.
This was the importance of Ossie Ardiles. Going into the 1978 World Cup Ardiles was by no means the fans favourite - many would have preferred to see a player from River Plate, rather than Huracan, in the heart of the midfield. But with his fetching and carrying, his give and goes, Ardiles brought tempo to the team - and well before the end of the 1978 World Cup he had won the public over.

Argentina's victory in that tournament is one of the more controversial in Wold Cup history. Two years into Menotti's reign the country suffered a coup and a barbaric military dictatorship took over, supposedly defending 'Christian' values by torturing dissidents and throwing them out of aeroplanes.

A man of the left, Menotti abhorred them, and saw his team as standing for genuine Argentine working class values. Thinking of the explosion of patriotism victory would bring, the dictatorship wanted him to win, and rumours of dirty tricks have hung around the tournament. It may be the case that without home advantage Argentina would not have triumphed in 1978. But whatever the truth about dirty tricks, in purely footballing terms something significant happened there.

That win launched Argentina on to the top table of world footballing nations, where they had not been for some time. And even when they have disappointed, such as in 2002, they have sat there ever since. This is the tradition that Diego Maradona inherits. As a player he is part of the greatness of the Argentina national team, just as Pedernera was in the 40s. Will he have a different fate as coach?
And his column from the week before:

Copa becoming Brazilian show

As English clubs take a stranglehold on the Champions League, a similar dynamic seems to be taking place in the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent. There are signs that it is becoming a Brazilian show.
There are differences. The Libertadores is much harder to predict than the Champions League because it is much more difficult to sustain success in South America. The constant sale of the best players leaves even the biggest clubs in a permanent state of flux.

This leaves more room for a surprise team to come through, such as LDU of Quito, who last year became the first Ecuadorian winners of the Libertadores (and who, on their showing so far, have little chance of retaining their title).

If a team from Ecuador are the reigning champions, and Argentina's Boca Juniors won it the year before, where is the Brazilian domination?
In the long-term, it is in the underlying pattern. Both LDU and Boca overcame Brazilian opponents in the final, and there were all-Brazilian finals in the previous two years.

Traditionally the Libertadores has been Argentina's thing - their clubs have won in 21 of the 49 years of the competition. But since River Plate last triumphed in 1996, Boca Juniors are the only Argentine side to reach the final. Ten Brazilian clubs have done so in this time.

In the short-term, hints of Brazilian supremacy are there in this year's performances. It is very early days. We are almost halfway through the group stage. The Libertadores, like any cup competition, tends to go to the team that hits form at the right time.

The most brilliant campaign I've seen in my 15 years in South America was Boca's in 2003, when they suddenly found the right position for Carlos Tevez and won both legs of the quarter, semi and the final. Up to that point, though, they had not been particularly impressive.

But, bearing in mind that it is too early for definitive conclusions, this year the challenge from Argentina is not convincing. So far their five representatives have accumulated five wins and six defeats, scoring 12 goals and conceding 15.

Boca, in a weak group, have won both their opening games. But even a diehard fan would concede that they have yet to find the right balance after selling left-sided midfielder Datolo to Napoli. Datolo's pace and lungpower were crucial in opening up space for Riquelme.

River Plate have made an uncertain start. I suspect they will improve - keeper Barbosa, playmaker Gallardo and striker Fabbiani will give them more of a spine - but there is long way to go before they can challenge for the title. San Lorenzo, who I thought might be Argentina's best bet, are struggling away from home and now have goalkeeping problems.

Estudiantes look an ordinary side - ever since they sold teenage star Piatti to Spain Veron has had no one to play with, no quick striker to latch on to his long diagonal passes. And Lanus have a promising young team, top of the domestic championship table, but have yet to find their legs in the Libertadores, and after three games without a win face a real battle to qualify for the knock-out stage.

Some other contenders - Chivas Guadalajara of Mexico are dangerous at home, but look defensively loose. There is also a lack of pace at the back in Chile's Colo Colo, though they have won two good victories and can boast an excellent partnership between wonderfully talented Colombian playmaker Torres and ungainly but effective Argentine striker Barrios.
Nacional of Uruguay have started well and have an excellent youth policy. But do they have the strength in depth to go all the way?

Libertad of Paraguay are another club that are specialising in producing players. They are 100% after three games (the only team with such a record, though Boca could join them). For all their superb organisation, I would like to see Libertad have to chase a game before considering them title candidates.

Which leaves the Brazilians, who so far have accumulated six wins and two defeats - both suffered by Palmeiras, the one Brazilian club in trouble. This is ironic, since they are the ones in the best domestic form.
At international level, though, flaws have been exposed - veteran defender Edmilson's slowness on the turn, highly promising striker Keirrison's need to improve his contribution in the build up play, and an overall lack of emotional balance.

The other Brazilian teams are looking well set to qualify - Sao Paulo will really take some stopping, Gremio and Cruzeiro are strong, and Sport of Recife, who qualified by winning the Brazilian Cup, have surprised so far with two terrific wins.

So if the Brazilians have won the title just 13 times in Libertadores history, why are they looking dominant now?

Partly because the fact that the Brazilian Championship is now played on a league basis mean that the best clubs qualify. But more importantly, because it has become their main priority.

For many years it wasn't. A giant country and the continent's only Portuguese-speakers, Brazil can be very insular. Pele's Santos won the competition twice, but in the mid 60s decided they would rather travel the world playing lucrative friendlies. In 1966, 69 and 70 there was no Brazilian participation, in protest either at financial arrangements, or (in 66) at the fact that the tournament had been expanded to include two teams per country.

Times have changed. Now, with the TV money rolling in, there are compelling financial reasons to take part in the Libertadores. And once Brazil is in and taking it seriously, with a population as big as all the other South American nations combined, it is hardly surprising that the Brazilians teams are the ones to beat.
Latest Vickery column:

Messi emerges from Maradona's shadow

Post categories: Football
Tim Vickery | 07:00 GMT, Sunday, 29 March 2009

Diego Maradona's first competitive match in charge of Argentina was also the first time that Lionel Messi was handed his old number 10 shirt.
The numbering confirmed suspicions that with Juan Roman Riquelme retiring from international football, Messi is taking on more responsibility. He becomes the team's attacking general - like a latter day Maradona.
The dribble Messi produced at the very end of the 4-0 win over Venezuela was worthy of Maradona himself. It ended with a poke that was inches wide. After the game Maradona said that had the ball gone the other side of the post then the crowd would have been obliged to leave and pay to get in again.

Messi's was a Man of the Match performance. He cut Venezuela apart with incisive dribbles and beautifully slipped passes. And if he was bold in his acceptance of the number 10 challenge, so was Maradona in the team he selected for this special occasion.


In his two warm-up friendlies (beating Scotland 1-0 and France 2-0) Maradona played a back four with Martin Demichelis as his defensive lynchpin. But the Bayern Munich centre back was suspended for this game - and Maradona changed not only the personnel, he also switched the system.

Against Venezuela he went with a back three. In the middle, making his first start for his country, was Marcos Angeleri of Estudiantes, who has made a name for himself recently bursting forward from right back - the position where he made his Argentine debut last month, coming on for the last 10 minutes against France.

Now, though, he was played in his original position as a libero, where his pace is useful in snuffing out danger. On his right in the back line was the veteran Javier Zanetti, who has played almost his entire international career as a rampaging right back. And on his left was Gabriel Heinze, hardly the most popular player among the Argentine footballing public.
True, the opponents may not have been the strongest, but Venezuela have made huge strides over the last decade. In recent World Cup qualification campaigns they have beaten everyone in the continent bar Brazil and Argentina - and beat Brazil in a friendly last year.

In the 2006 qualifiers they won 3-0 away to Uruguay (where Brazil have never won a competitive game) and they beat Ecuador in this campaign. There is little doubt, then, that Maradona was taking a chance with his unorthodox back three.

Two names convinced him that the risk was worth taking - Mascherano and Gago.

This was the first time since last June's 0-0 draw away to Brazil that the pair of them were able to line up together in World Cup qualification. In the subsequent four rounds one or the other was either injured or suspended, and the team was without one of the most promising central midfield partnerships in international football.
Had the pair been available it is highly likely that Maradona would not be coach of Argentina. Results would probably have been better, and the pressure that forced his predecessor Alfio Basile to resign may not have been so intense.

Maradona has been lucky enough to have the Liverpool man (ex River Plate) and the Real Madrid midfielder (formerly of Boca Juniors) together in all three of his matches so far. He was quick to appreciate the value of their partnership. They complement each other so well - Mascherano to sit and Gago to knit, one to win the ball and the other to play it crisply to the strikers.

Against Venezuela the first half belonged to Mascherano, reading the game well, snapping his tackles in and dominating the space. And the second was Gago's - swinging the ball wide, his passes helped unlock the defence for two of the goals.

As Maradona has recognised, the Mascherano-Gago partnership provided balance to his side. With them in place he could go with his experimental back three - and also he could, for the first time, play Messi, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez in the same starting line up.

The tiny strike trio all made one and scored one - especially good news for Tevez, who had not scored in the campaign. Maradona felt vindicated in his selection, especially since some have been calling for the inclusion of a target man striker, and questioning the absence of Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain.

It is unlikely, though, that he will be able to field all three of them all the time - which presumably leaves Tevez on the bench. Someone - either a striker or one of the wide midfielders - has to drop out if he goes with a back four.

It is also worth noting that, despite winning 4-0, Argentina created little in the first half - I can recall Messi's goal and two other moments of danger. There are times when the variety of a back-to-goal striker would be useful, and may help bring the best out of Aguero (for if Messi brings back memories of Maradona, Aguero is the closest thing to Romario I have seen).

Then there is Juan Sebastian Veron. Now back with Estudiantes, he came on for the last 20 minutes. He was booed by some, cheered by others - since the 2002 World Cup flop he has divided opinions. Physically he may have lost something but the intelligence is all there. Admittedly by the time he came on for Tevez the game was won and space was easier to find, but Argentina's play flowed nicely while he was on. He immediately struck up a good partnership with Messi and his presence gave Gago more freedom to lope forward.

There are options, then, for Maradona to chew over. Wednesday away to Bolivia will teach us little. The extreme altitude of La Paz makes the game a one off. But the two rounds in June (home to Colombia and away to Ecuador) and September (home to Brazil and away to Paraguay) will shine a more searching light on the strengths and weaknesses of Diego Maradona's Argentina.

Comments on this piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:

Q) The Guardian's Sid Lowe recently made the case for Daniel Alves being the second best player in the world, yet he's not even considered the best right back in the Brazilian national team by Dunga.
I know Maicon is a fantastic player too, but better than Daniel Alves? Is that the consensus in Brazilian footballing circles?

A) I've been a Daniel Alves fan for longer than most - he's been in my notebook since I saw him for Bahia in 2002, and at the start of 2003 I picked him out in World Soccer magazine as one of the stars of the South American Under-20 Championships.

But, as Dunga says, 'the truth is out there on the pitch' and (Editor's note: Tim wrote this this before Sunday's 1-1 draw with Ecuador) there's no doubt that Maicon's performances for Brazil have been better.
Strange - the only time Daniel Alves has looked really at home in the national team is when he came on as an early sub in the 2007 Copa America final and played on the right of midfield.

Now, I've got my criticisms of Dunga, but I can't go along with the view that his preference for Maicon is a defensive option. That's not what Maicon is about, or what he does best. He steams forward with extraordinary power. Towards the end of last year Portugal forgot to mark him after half time and he took the game away from them in a matter of minutes.
Perhaps an advantage Daniel Alves has is his free kicks - especially if the physical decline of Ronaldinho stops him being picked - I believe Ronaldinho will only start against Ecuador because Kaka is injured. But so far anyway, Maicon is first choice on merit.

Q) I was interested in your thoughts on Fredy Montero. He is with the Seattle Sounders right now and he is Colombian I believe. Do you have any information on him? I watched the opening match and he was fantastic, clearly one of the most skilled players in MLS. Do you think he has the potential to move to Europe?
Peter Udstuen

A) He caught my eye with Deportivo Cali and I like him a lot - skill, intelligence, vision and goals - an excellent combination. I thought Colombia treated him harshly last year - brought him into the national team for the World Cup qualifier against Paraguay, gave him a big build up and then hauled him off soon after half time and dropped him from the squad - a strange way to develop players.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed when he went to the MLS - though his option does show how well the league has established itself. There was interest from Europe - and perhaps a club in Argentina would have been a good choice, since a number of top class Colombians have developed there.

So yes, I do think he has it in him to play in Europe. His compatriot Toja has made the switch form the MLS to Europe, so perhaps Montero can do it as well.
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