Argentina saved from disaster at Copa America gala opening

By Paul Gardner

Admittedly, I did not get what I wanted from the Grand Opening Game of the Copa America between Argentina and Bolivia.

I was looking for a festival of the skilled, artistic soccer that is the Latin game. Maybe we’ll still get plenty of that as the tournament unfolds, but we didn’t get much of it last night.

There are reasons, of course. The modern game, by which I mean the modern European game, does not have much time -- in the most literal sense of the phrase -- for ball artistry. So it’s worth remembering that all but one of Argentina’s 23 players play their soccer in Europe. In contrast, 18 of Bolivia’s team are with Bolivian clubs.

So there is the influence of Europe on the Latin game -- an influence that brings an emphasis on speed and strength and tactics. Those are qualities that tend to snuff out the traditional Latin game, as they did last night.

Also at work last night was the dreaded “opening game” factor -- the fear that if you lose the opening game in your initial three-game group, then your tournament is over. A fear that is substantially backed up by statistics from previous tournaments, all of which are nowadays played using groups of four teams for the opening group format.

The fear descends on both teams, but obviously last night the pressure it brought was felt much more intensely by Argentina. It was expected to win this one -- as the host team, as one of the favorites, a team bulging with top international stars, and playing before a stadium full of its own expectant fans. After all, who have Bolivia got to set alongside Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Angel Di Maria?  In a word, nobody.

There was a further reason to expect success. It could, no doubt be the luck of the draw -- but it doesn’t look like sheer chance when the tournament’s two most powerful teams start off their action by playing the two supposedly weakest teams -- Argentina against Bolivia, and (on Sunday) Brazil against Venezuela.

Bolivia’s game plan was pretty obviously to stop Messi -- and it did that pretty successfully. Messi will have done little, on this showing, to convince those Argentine fans who believe he is over-rated, a pale shadow of their idol Maradona.

Could it be that Messi and Tevez simply don’t combine well? We’ve had examples of this supposed player-incompatibility over the years, though somehow the proof always seems inadequate.

Back in the late 1940s, England had two splendid forwards in Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney -- the England team of that era usually included one or the other, but rarely both. In the 1960s, the Italian coach Ferrucio Valcareggi felt that Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera couldn’t operate together -- he employed the famous stafetta the relay, where as one player was taken off the field, the other charged on.

Whatever, there was little to be seen from either Tevez or Messi. A far-from sparkling first half saw the Bolivians grow in confidence as an incoherent Argentina made a mess of nearly everything they tried. Neither goalkeeper was really troubled.

Just two minutes into the second half, a backheel from Bolivia’s Edivaldo Rojas went directly, and not with any great power, to the feet of Argentina’s Ever Banega, standing on his own goal line. And Banega let the ball slip under his feet.

Which gave Argentina about 45 minutes to get its act in order and score the three or four goals that most fans had been expecting. Nothing like that happened -- Argentina continued to struggle, a team without a game, while Bolivia remained remarkably calm under the increasingly frantic pressure, frequently playing the ball out of its own penalty area with short passes, even when surrounded and harried by desperate Argentines.

The Argentines got its life-saving goal in the 76th minutes -- a thing of beauty: a long cross from the left into the Bolivian penalty area, chested down by fullback Nicolas Burdisso to Sergio Aguero (he had been on the field only five minutes) who pounced and slammed a terrific volley into the net.

But it needs to be said that 10 minutes earlier, Bolivia’s Marcelo Moreno Martins muffed a great chance to put Bolivia 2-0 up when be broke through the Argentina defense, but could not manage to get around goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Argentina, one presumes -- surely with justification -- will get better. Costa Rica and Colombia are the other teams in its group, teams that play an open game that should allow Argentina to begin playing like . . . well, like Argentina. Because, frankly, on this gala opening night, though the Argentines were saved from disaster by Aguero’s superb goal, the quality of their soccer was poor.

It has been a long time since one felt that the South American team likely to produce the most faithfully South-American soccer would be Uruguay. But that is where we are now. Based on the performances in last year’s World Cup, we can expect a solid defensive performance from Paraguay, but it will be Uruguay that excites.

Unless ... we get back something of the real Brazil, another South American team that has, of late, been turning its back on its traditional game and becoming more European. That approach failed in South Africa, the coach who espoused it, Dunga (who played much of his soccer in Europe) has gone.

But, it seems to me, that it is not the departure of Dunga that may give us back a more Brazilian style -- it is the arrival of the teenager Neymar. A kid who has played all his life in Brazil, so far untouched by the need to “adapt” to the European game.

How satisfying it would be to see this tournament dominated by two superbly skilled young players. Messi, who has played most of his life in Europe but under the wonderfully creative wing of Barcelona’s style, and Neymar, still enjoying the freedom to play the sport with the enthusiasm and the wonder of a boy.


5 comments about "Argentina saved from disaster at Copa America gala opening".
  1. Thomas Brannan, July 2, 2011 at 4:11 a.m.

    "We need to develop players that are more ready at this stage. At this stage, in our country the kids are still boys". Cabrera Talk about throwing people under the bus.
    Is everyone going to let him get away with talking like this. I guess so its the USA.

  2. James Froehlich, July 2, 2011 at 12:41 p.m.

    I haven't watched the second half but I would disagree slightly regarding Messi - in the first 15 minuts I thought that Argentina looked great and had several good chances. Messi's dribbling and passing were stellar but all that seemed to fade as Bolivia strengthened their defense and became more physical. I look forward to watching the 2nd half.

  3. Brian Something, July 2, 2011 at 4:19 p.m.

    I'm not sure what game Gardner was watching. The Bolivians played with the much derided European style "organization", "compactness" and tactical nous, while the Argentines tried flair but had little success breaking down the Andeans. The Argentines struggled because they didn't have a Xavi or a Kaka (two more who play in evil Europe) pulling the strings.

  4. Chris Ogle, July 3, 2011 at 6:33 a.m.

    I would have to agree with Brian F in that Messi simply isn't as effective for Argentina as he is with Barca and a lot of the reason for this is that Argentina doesn't have the midfield ability that Barca does which makes Messi's job a lot easier.I have to disagree with Paul when he talks about the current style of play in Europe vs S.America because the most skilled players in the world are now coming from Spain and the pro clubs in Argentina and Brazil, for the most part, employ a tactical oriented,conservative approach that resembles the same type of game played in Europe. Also,after watching the Euro U17 last month and World U17 this month Germany and Holland (along with Spain) have two of the most skillful and exciting youth teams in the world.Without a doubt,Brazil and Argentina still produce hordes of highly skilled young players but to stereotype S.America as the land of beautiful football where every game is an exhibition of pure skill with little or no defensive tactics and Europe as being all about catenaccio and big,strong brutish players with a minimum of skill simply isn't the truth.

  5. Julio Vargas, July 4, 2011 at 2:59 p.m.

    Paul – In the Copa America, the South American teams, regardless how many players are in Europe, the countries always play their own South American style. As far as Argentina specifically, the problem is the coach. Batista thinks because Messi plays for Argentina, the most effective way to use him is by making the team to play like Barcelona. Argentina needs to play its own style and with a center forward, they do not have a “number 9”, Batista is using Cambiaso and Mesi as a number 9. That is not going to work. If Argentina does not go back and starts playing its own football, they will not make it to the final game. Bolivia played very well, the question is if the Bolivians would be able to keep the same rhythm and pace for the rest of the tournament or what happened last Friday was just a one time effort.

    Now, changing a little bit subjects and probably the intend of your article I want to tell you that I was very interested in watching this game because I want to compare how Bolivia was going to look against Argentina, with the game that USA had against Argentina in the 1-1 draw.

    First of all, even though Bolivia played to counter-attack, with only one forward at front (Moreno), Bolivia never looked as bad as the USA looked on the first half against Argentina. Besides that the USA was playing at home. The USA team barely touched the ball during the first half in that game. It was embarrassing how we played that first half.

    Second, Bolivia unlike the USA scored the first goal, and Argentina had to come back. We know that Bradley always lets the other teams to score first. Actually, now with Bradley not even when we score 2 goals we get to win the game. Anyway, my point is that Bolivia without having players like Howard, Donovan, Dempsey, etc…players with solid international experience looked as bad as the USA. I am saying this, because all of those Bradley supporters use the excuse that the US team does not win or get further in tournaments because we do not have better players. Well, yes, there is some truth in there, but obviously having a better coach helps considerable. Bolivia like you mention in your article, almost had a 2nd goal. Bolivia had a clear chance to be 2-0 up when Moreno failed to score in the one-to-one against Romero.

    Also, another thing that I like from Quinteros, the Bolivian coach is that while they were 1-1, Quinteros put Arce in the field. Arce is a forward, and he had a wonderful play on the right side, getting rid of a couple of defenders and giving the ball to Chavez, who shot to the net, but got blocked by a defender. Quinteros could put another defender and go for the draw, but he did not.

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