Argentina World Cup Review
It was a case of close but no cigar for Argentina after Mario Gotze’s 113th winner shattered dreams of a third world title for the Albiceleste. Left to ruminate on a series of near misses, there was a palpable sense of “what if” among Argentinian fans at full time, rueful of a missed opportunity at glory, but when the hurt and sorrow fades away, pride will be the lasting emotion of what should be deemed a successful campaign for Alejandro Sabella and his ‘warriors’.
‘Warriors’ was indeed an apt term used to describe his players for this was a hard fought path to the Maracanã. Before the tournament much of the focus had been on the dazzling array of attacking talent in the Argentina squad but ultimately it was the sturdy, gutsy displays by their previously criticised defence that proved the bedrock of their success in Brazil.
A stuttering start to the group stage saw Argentina grind out results against Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria largely thanks to talismanic captain Lionel Messi who not once, not twice but thrice producing game changing moments of magic. The narrative for this to be Leo’s tournament was at least still on course even if the manner of the victories left a lot to be desired.
That sense of destiny was ratcheted up further in the round of 16 as Messi summoned the energy to surge past the challenges of the Swiss defenders and lay the ball off to Angel di Maria to dutifully stroke home the extra-time winner. A Blarim Dzemali header against the post minutes lateronly increased the feeling of their preordained fate to the extent that photoshopped images of Pope Frances clearing off the line later emerged on social media.
In the quarter-finals, an expertly struck Gonzalo Higuain volley saw off dark horses Belgium and ensured Argentina would play seven games at the World Cup for the first time since 1990. Injury to Di Maria would prove to be a heavy price for their progression but nevertheless there was a sense of momentum finally starting to gain.
A Javier Mascherano inspired semi-final battle against the Netherlands and another clean sheet for penalty hero Sergio Romero set up a final showdown with familiar foe Germany, their adversaries in both the 1986 and 1990 finals. Though it is hard to begrudge Germany the victory – especially after their humiliation of hosts Brazil in the semis – Argentina executed their game plan almost to perfection and had any one of Higuain, Messi and Palacio put away their golden opportunities they could have edged the tight contest.
The fact that they were just seven minutes away from penalties and possible victory on Brazilian soil will be a bitter pill to swallow, with many fans taking particular grievance at Manuel Neuer’s challenge on Gonzalo Higuain, but nevertheless the players will take some solace in having given their all and having done their country proud. After the final whistle, Mascherano neatly surmised, “We lost with dignity…failure is hiding away, not facing up to the challenge. This team did the opposite.”
Certainly Argentina’s passionate band of travelling support remained in fine voice throughout the tournament, fervently backing their boys until the very end and transforming every match into a home game atmosphere. Their ubiquitous anthem “Brasil, decime que se siente” was another undoubted highlight of a well-received World Cup.
Greeted by thousands more fans on their homecoming, many of the squad return with their heads held high and reputations enhanced. Sergio Romero banished all questions about his lack of game time at Monaco with consistent performances between the posts, going 485 minutes without conceding a goal – the third longest run in World Cup history and longer than any other Argentinian arquero – and making two decisive penalty saves versus the Netherlands. Marcos Rojo, another perceived weak link in the Argentina first XI, had a fine tournament both defensively and going forward and won over many doubters, while Martin Demichelis continued his redemptive end to the season by forcing his way into the starting lineup to partner the excellent Ezequiel Garay.
If Messi provided the magic – albeit more intermittently as the competition progressed – Javier Mascherano proved himself to be the beating heart and spiritual leader of the team. Much of Argentina’s defensive solidarity owed to the tenacity of their midfield general, shielding the back four, breaking up play and barking orders to his teammates. His virtuoso display against the Netherlands sparked a deluge of Chuck Norris-esque #maschefacts online and will go down in Argentinian football folklore. As one newspaper put it, the ‘Jefecito’ (Little Boss, Mascherano’s nickname) became the big boss.
However, for some it will go down as a frustrating experience. Fitness issues hampered the contribution of Gonzalo Higuain and particularly Sergio Aguero, the pair only managing a single goal between them. Federico Fernandez underlined the legitimate doubts surrounding his selection and was rightly dropped after the Round of 16, while Fernando Gago flattered to deceive, only notably improving the team when he came on in the first game and not doing too much else until Lucas Biglia took his place.
In amongst it all, there were moments of levity too. With social media playing an increased role in how we consume sporting events, Brazil 2014 was no different with many incidents giving rise to a number of amusing fan reactions and responses. As well as the aforementioned Maschefacts and Pope related jokes, memorable moments included Marcos Rojo’s rabona clearance against Bosnia, Diego Maradona’s middle finger response to claims of being a ‘mufa’ (bad luck charm) and Ezequiel Lavezzi’s mischievously squirting Sabella with water. The highlight however had to be Alejandro Sabella’s topple as he fell backwards in disbelief after Higuain’s miss against Belgium, which spawned an array of amusing online incarnations.
And what of coach Alejandro Sabella? Some will criticise him for an overly defensive approach, others for supposedly bowing to player pressure and a partisan few might even still be banging the drum for Tevez’s inclusion. While his substitutions were largely uninspiring, even costly in the case of the decision to bring on Aguero for Lavezzi in the final, generally speaking Sabella has proved himself both flexible tactically and able of fostering a great team spirit that took them to within a whisker of the biggest prize in world football.
Whether it was staying faithful to the likes of Romero and Rojo or admitting his mistakes and making necessary changes such as replacing Fernandez and Gago – stalwarts of qualification – with Demichelis and Biglia, Pachorra handled himself with dignity throughout and deserves credit for getting Argentina to play as a team again. When considering how far this team has come from the last World Cup and their dismal Copa America campaign, a run to the final certainly should not be understated.
Looking forward, the squad with the highest average age at the world cup will need a degree of renovation before Russia in four years’ time but will have two Copa Americas to experiment and gain valuable tournament experience. The pain may never fully subside but that “great, profound and immense” pain will only act as fuel for Messi, Mascherano and co. who, backed by the renewed pride of a nation, will endeavour to build on their achievements and go one better than in Brazil.