A Giant in Decline: Argentina’s Rocky Road to the World Cup

Jaime Heilbron

Anyone who knows anything about soccer knows that Argentina is a powerhouse. The Argentine national team has won two World Cups and has 14 Copa America titles to their credit. They have produced world-class players, such as Diego Maradona, considered by many as the best soccer player ever, and more recently, Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona’s star forward. Presently, however, they are as vulnerable as any other team in the world.

Argentina is up against the ropes in South American qualifying for South Africa 2010. They currently sit in fifth place in the standings. Only four teams advance directly from South America, and the fifth will have to decide their fate in a playoff against the fourth-placed squad in North America. The “Gauchos” find themselves in this position after losses in their last three qualifying matches.

On September 5, Argentina hosted their archrival, Brazil. The match was played in the not-so-friendly confines of the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito, as opposed to their traditional stadium, Estadio Monumental, which holds more people, but keeps them much further from the pitch. Maradona, current manager of the national team, pleaded for that arrangement several months ago, because he felt that the smaller stadium would let the crowd to into the Brazilians’ heads more easily.

Argentina opened the match with constant pressure on the Brazilian defense and goaltender, traditionally a weak link for Brazil. However, the Brazilians have improved that in recent years under the management of Dunga, and now have Julio Cesar, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, between the posts. While Argentina pressured and attacked mercilessly, they left enormous gaps in their defensive zone and the speedy Brazilian midfielders took advantage. Two free kicks resulted in two Brazilian goals in less than five minutes, giving Brazil a 2-0 lead before halftime. The second half brought more of the same with Argentina desperately pressuring, while Brazil worked to preserve their lead. The hosts cut the visitors’ lead to 2-1 in the 65th minute, but an instant response from Brazil made the score 3-1, securing the “Verde e Amarelo” a spot in next summer’s World Cup.

Four days later, the Argentineans traveled to neighboring Paraguay, who are always tough to beat in Asuncion, and were looking to secure their own qualification.

The Argentineans played one of their worst halves of the entire qualifier, allowing the Paraguayans to score early, and they should have scored more. Argentina raised their level of play in the second half, but it was too late, as the hosts bunkered in defense, and ended up taking the three points that awarded them their ticket to the 2010 World Cup.

After the game, those two losses, coupled with Ecuador’s victory over Bolivia, knocked Argentina from their position in the top four, with Ecuador taking their place. In the immediate aftermath of the crushing defeats, Maradona has been the target of critics. Argentina has lost valuable points and that now puts them in a difficult position with two games left in mid-October, at home against

Peru and away to Uruguay. On paper, Argentina should destroy Peru, but with their recent mediocre play, anything could happen. The game against Uruguay will be tough, as they are hard to defeat at home and both teams could be playing for their lives in the last day of the qualifiers. The Argentineans will need to be humble and raise their level of soccer. If they do not, they could be facing a CONCACAF team in November, or even worse, miss their first World Cup since 1970.