World’s Greatest Rivalry Finds Argentina in Turmoil

Except for the UEFA Champions League final in Rome, no match this calendar year will be bigger, yet you’ve probably only tangentially heard that Brazil is going to Argentina this weekend for World Cup qualifying.

“That’s cool,” you might say (you don’t mind if I quote you, do you). “Big match, but why’s this one such a big deal?”

In the immortal words of Jules Winnfield, “Well, allow me to retort.”

This is the biggest international rivalry in the world. The two countries responsible for a staggering amount of the world’s footballing talent are at odds over more than just geography and continental dominance. The are deep, cultural and historical differences between these two footballing worlds. That most fans around the world readily lump the two countries together only serves to fuel the rivalry.

Add in the undo shadow Brazil casts on Argentina because of the Selecão’s World Cup success, the Pelé versus Maradona debate, club and league rivalries, a history of drama and conflict on the pitch and you have an international rivalry beyond parallel. Mexico and the United States illicits laughs compared to this one. It near impossible to think of two a rivalry between two countries that even comes close.

Maybe if the United States had been perpetually good at ice hockey during the Cold War, the U.S.-U.S.S.R. hockey rivalry could have paralleled this one.

Maybe.

For Argentina, the stakes have never been higher. Few people are talking about it because Argentina has had close calls in past qualifying campaigns, but the Alibceleste are on the verge of missing the World Cup despite sitting fourth in CONMEBOL qualifying. That automatic spot is in play because of the difficult schedule Diego Maradona’s squad faces over their last four qualifiers: hosting Brazil, away to Paraguay in this break; at home against Peru, and finishing at Uruguay to close out, next month.

They will win the third of those, hosting the weakest team in the tournament. In the other three, they will be underdogs, a terrible route for a nation that is only two points ahead of Ecuador, four ahead of Uruguay. Neither Ecuador (at Columbia, at Bolivia, vs. Uruguay, at Chile) nor Uruguay (at Peru, vs. Columbia, at Ecuador, vs. Argentina) have to play three matches against the region’s top six. Argentina does.

Right now, it looks like Argentina will have to go to Montevideo and get a result against Uruguay in Round 18, a result that’s not out of the question given Argnetina’s talent level and Uruguay’s home record in this qualifying cycle: three wins, three draws in seven matches. More often than not, the Uruguayans are not winning.

Countering that is Argentina’s terrible road form. They have one win and two draws in their seven road qualifiers. In the two road matches they’ve played since Maradona was appointed manager, they have lost by an aggregate of 8-1.

That is the real story behind the Albiceleste. It’s not that they’re in a bad place – they clearly are, but it’s not so bad place that they can’t still avoid that fifth place finish (the spot that will be matched-up against the fourth place finisher from CONCACAF). And they could always finished fourth.

The problem: on form they can’t be expected to win at Paraguay or at Uruguay. There is no way they can qualify without winning at least one of those matches …

Or beating Brazil on Saturday in Rosario.

Even people who follow football do not seem to understand how shocking it would be for Argentina to beat Brazil. It certainly is possible (this is, after all, football), but Argentina has been so ineffectual and disorganized that it is difficult to imagine them beating one of the world’s top two teams, let alone the one of those teams they seem to match-up so poorly against.

Brazil convincingly won the Confederations Cup earlier this summer, but although that result received the international attention, it pales in comparison to their form in CONMEBOL qualifying. After a slow start to the tournament, Brazil has surged to the top of the world’s most dense region, allowing only six goals in fourteen matches. That statistic would be impressive in any region. In CONMEBOL, where the next best goals allowed figure is Columbia’s eleven, it is unfathomable.

During the last set of qualifiers, Brazil posted the unquestioned most impressive result of South American qualifying. In the thirteenth round, Brazil went to Montevideo – where they had not won in over thirty years – and blew away Uruguay, 4-0. It’s the only loss Uruguay has suffered at home during qualifying and has sent that team into a tailspin. In contrast, it moved a Brazil team that had been getting draw-after-draw from second into first, showing the region that they had finally rediscovered their high gear. Even though we are talking about Brazil, the result – be it the history or the goals scored – was breath-taking.

Brazil finished the break with a home win over Paraguay to knock the region’s former leaders into third place. They are only one point up on Chile, but their +19 goal differential is ten better than the next nation (also Chile). It has been over one year since they lost in Asuncíon to Paraguay, their only defeat of the tournament. In the interim, they’re unbeaten in nine straight qualifiers. All this is to say that after a precarious start to qualifying that almost saw the federation replace their coach, Brazil is back.

On form, they are the antithesis to their rivals, but the contrast goes beyond mere results. The Selecão manager, Dunga, has been everything that Maradona is not.

Where Maradona has been inconsistent and impulsive in his selection, Dunga has been steady and predictable, to the point that players like Daniel Alves, Diego, and Adriano have trouble getting time because other players are either better fits or are already settled into the side. Dunga has stopped the door revolving around the team’s selection, apparently selling it on consignment to AFA.

Where Maradona has more regard for talent than a player’s fit in a formation, Dunga has very specific roles for each of this players. That combined with consistent selection and managerial support and loyalty means you will rarely find the likes of Luis Fabiano, Kaka, Ramires or Robinho out-of-place on the pitch. If you watch Argentina, is near impossible to determine where a player is supposed to be playing, let alone what his role in the team’s approach.

Where Dunga has been able to make adjustments that put his side in position to win (most famously to U.S.-supporters, directing Kaka toward the left in the Confederations Cup final to take advantage of Jonathan Spector), Maradona does not seem to believe in adjustments. The only time his arms unfold from his chest is when the Albiceleste score a goal. Beyond that, he tries to project calm and confidence (something only projects irony). He expects his players to do something remarkable, and when they don’t, he simply tries somebody else.

In that way, Maradona and Dunga manage exactly as you would have expected based on their playing careers. Dunga was a cerebral, tough and experienced holding midfielder – exactly the player you would expect somebody to create if they had to make a Brazilian footballers with a German and Italian background. He knows Brazil’s talent will win most matches, but he doesn’t rely on it. He’s implemented an approach that allows his chosen players to perform to their expectations while being tactically responsible.

Maradona just picks players, often on hunches (as we’ve seen with the recent recall of Martín Palermo). He rolls out the players he thinks will have the most influence on the match, whether that leads him to a three man back line or a four, three defensive midfielders or two, three forwards or one. It’s all about those hunches, and once he’s focused on one, he seems to think the players will take care of the rest. Good luck trying to determine what he’s trying to do with Lionel Messi, let alone figuring out how he’s trying to replace the exiled Juan Román Riquelme.

When he does appear to have an idea, Maradona’s ideas remain inexplicable. The Palermo recall is a perfect example. Brazil is great in the air, particularly with the strength and size of the center backs. Argentina does not have good size up front (which might be the only understatement of this article), so a logical strategy might be to try and stretch out the Selecão back line and create holes through which Messi, Carlos Tévez, and Kün Agüero can run. Don’t try to get into a battle against Brazil’s strength. Let Juan Sebastian Verón distribute from outside the box, trying to play Xavi Hernández for Lionel Messi.

Instead, Maradona said Palermo has been recalled because of his skill in the air, an indication that the 35-year-old Boca star who has not played internationally in almost a decade will not only dress but is a candidate to start. At 6′ 1 1/2″, Palermo is no giant, even if he is very adroit in the air, but the wisdom of game-planning toward Brazil’s strengths, given how many alternatives his talent affords him, has to be questioned.

It should not be overlooked that Palermo joined Boca Juniors in 1997 around the same time Maradona was finishing up his playing career with the club. For a man that plays on impulse, Maradona’s memories may be unduly influencing his judgment.

This is why it is so difficult to image Argentina winning on Saturday. It’s unlikely Maradona will start his best lineup, but Dunga’s XI will be his normal, steady, well-oiled machine. When his lineup’s shortcomings are exposed, Maradona’s adjustments will be to insert players who he envisions doing something special. The tactical adjustments presumedly implicit in such moves will be lost on Maradona. He’s waiting from somebody to save him in the same way he miraculously saves so many of his managers.

But Diego never had Maradona as a manager. He never had so much to overcome. Messi may very well turn out to be a legend (and Argentina certainly needs new one), but he has to overcome an on-pitch obstacle his manager never faced.

The quizzical part of all these obstacles is Argentina’s talent. They are still one of the three most talent teams in the world (if not the most talented), which means they can win any match at any time, as evidenced by this month’s display in Moscow. They beat a Russian team that might be the best of the second tier of world powers. Russia had not lost at home in three years, yet Maradona’s guys posted an impressive 3-2 victory.

If Argentina plays as well in Rosario, they can defy all the logic and evidence of the Maradona-era and down Brazil. And if Argentina is truly a reflection of their manager, a win over Brazil would be just another story in the ever mercurial legend of Diego Maradona.

This is my first contribution to The Kartik Report. I am very proud to be associated with the site. Expect to hear more time me in the future. For more information on my background and other work, you can visit RF Football.