Midst all the underpants ads, the carefully placed bottles of water – logo out – and exhortations to love those little plastic cards offering mastery and freedom; midst all the conflicting emotions that come when homecomings recall the money one could never get at home; midst all the strapped ankles and minds strapped for one-liners, midst all the hustle and hubbub there yet remains in football a space for the simple pleasures of vagabondism, for the wordless, strolling comradeship, nay communion, of a man and his dog. The manager, it seems, needs this object of affection, a soothing symbol of independence, of self-assertion. If it is his job to choose, then his choices must be unique, as if to say ‘I was here’. This is what the Egyptians were no doubt getting at when they made a household pet into an eternal monument.
Supporters and the media, too, arguably need a character like this to make sense of a reign. Otherwise the narrative becomes fragmented, more proper to a petless dorm community. (As yet unverified reports posit a link between the growth of the squad system in Euroball with an increase in ‘inexplicable’ parking offences). Coco Basile’s Boca team everyone knew by heart and it made them feel warm inside. His World Cup qualifying team, however, went schizoid after Román stopped scoring and soon descended into farce with a mishmash of hopeful touts on hopeless nobodies apparently bewildered by their own inclusion. Maradona, too, went for the cat-throwing approach for much of his roly-poly campaign. His results only improved once he’d settled on Ariel Garcé for the mascot role in South Africa. Checho Batistenstein’s time as manager was so utterly lacking in personality he couldn’t even find one. Indeed, it seems that, as with everything else, he got things backwards and decided to pick on the people’s mascot, Carlitos Tevez.
So far Alejandro Sabella’s run has been very positive. The team has been playing with a coherence and consistency not seen since 2007. Since stuttering badly away to Venezuela (1-0) and after drawing at home to Bolivia (1-1), they have put in some fine performances and scored plenty of goals. For the first time in a number of years, the team looks more balanced and cunning. Lack of quality personnel means the defence is as dodgy as ever, yet the team seems more conscious than before of the importance of working together in this regard; and they’re happy to play on the counter if need be. Messi praised the team’s discipline after the Colombia win last year: “They wanted to play on the counter but we wouldn’t let them.” Sabella has shown restraint regarding his attacking options, and he usually chooses correctly when and how to change things.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the current qualifying campaign, then, has been the inclusion of many names no-one saw coming. Sabella has consistently gone all Garry Cook, eschewing the starlets of Europe’s big leagues (Pastore, Lamela, Maxi Moralez, etc. etc.) in favour of Palmeiras’ Hernán Barcos and Internacional’s hulking Pablo Guiñazú. The former we haven’t seen much of yet but the latter has racked up considerable game time and very much reminds us of that QWOP bloke. He has also given plenty of minutes to his Libertadores-winning Estudiantes players, like Braña, Desábato, Enzo Perez et al. It’s difficult to decide how to parse all these details, how much of it is canny man/squad management and how much flagrant nepotism. With the team struggling to compose or assert itself, frozen ‘neath the fiery roar of fourty thousand maddened Peruvians last month, the options on the bench were: besides the goalkeepers: Zabaleta, Clemente (both fine, should probably start…), Desábato, José Sosa, Maxi Rodriguez, Guiñazú, Biglia (!), Enzo Perez, Hernán Barcos and Rodrigo Palacio.
Trappishly, we have to conclude results must be the determining factor. It can be a little hard to swallow at times, however. Incredible as it may seem, for instance, the attacking ‘restraint’ Sabella has shown has largely consisted in leaving Aguero on the bench. His place in the opening games went to José Sosa, a somewhat inscrutable midfielder not blessed with pace, goals, tackling ability or outstanding leadership qualities. Many a groan has rolled round this vast land’s sparsely populated provinces whenever Sosa has been mentioned, then whenever he’s touched the ball. Not that he’s been bad, mind. It’s that he neither catches the eye nor is he even gruffly not-very-easy on it, as they say. He’s a slow-moving blur, like Stalin during the Revolution.
Nevertheless, Sosa played a key role in what was arguably the defining game of Sabella’s time in charge thus far, the two-one away win to Colombia last November. The whole team laboured in the heat of Barranquilla and went in 1-0 down at half-time, with Burdisso already off with a very, very sore knee. Agüero came on for Guiñazú at half-time as Sabella went all-out: Mascherano alone in the middle, Di María out wide and Sosa everywhere else. Agüero and Messi got the goals but it was the man from Metalist that wrung our heart dry. He ran like Duff in 2001, with the same bent-double gestures of utter exhaustion late on and the same inspired air, apparently unable to make a wrong decision or give the ball away. It was beautiful, especially considering the defeat there in the previous WC qualifiers (2-1, Tevez red card) and the hammering Falcao’s boys had given Batistenstein’s monster in the Copa América.
As Sosa himself complains in the interview below, Messi and el Kun were always going to take the plaudits for the victory. However, it is surprising that in the last few qualifiers Sosa has lost his place even in Sabella’s plans. The man instrumental to the finest result of the current regime has been sidelined as the 4-4-2 of the opening games has made way for a 4-2-4 featuring Di María, Messi, Agüero and Higuaín. So be it. Gago’s fine form and Mascherano’s drastically improved passing have lessened the need to bolster the midfield. Sabella is probably right to focus on this front line. Plus, he may want his pet sitting near him on the bench.
Specifically regarding this interview, once again it is from Olé’s Ukraine correspondent, Martín Macchiavello. It got our attention, along with yesterday’s interview with Kharkiv kingpin Oleg Yaroslavsky, because of the candour with which Sosa speaks. In a squad that has been in part defined by the accession of new names, Sosa has at once been among the most successful and the most maligned. Sabella has ignored many players in Europe, preferring to select less well-known players in South American leagues, yet he has made a clear exception regarding Sosa. Hence, although we are all well accustomed to argieballers establishing themselves in far off lands, we rarely get to hear from these wild geese. And rarely are they so intriguingly bitter. For your pleasure, pegamequemegusta.
“If I play at the World Cup, i’m getting a tatoo that says ‘Brazil 2014’.”
by Martín Macchiavello
Sosa speaks about the drawbacks to being so closely associated with Sabella, the endless journeys from Kharkiv to meet up with the Selección, media coverage and scores to settle.
On one of the tables in the dining room in The Base, Metalist’s training ground on the outskirts of Kharkiv, there lies a fax showing a travel itinerary that will soon find its way into the bin…never mind the AFA letterhead… José Sosa sighs with relief, nothwithstanding the footknack he’s been suffering recently. Oleksandr Yaroslavsy, club president and all-round mogul of Ukraine’s second city, just gave the thumbs up for the €18,000 charter that will leave the ex-Estudiantes player at Fiuminicino airport in Rome this Monday. From Italy on, everything will be more straightforward and ‘normal’ for the Principito who in these Soviet lands [sic] is treated like a Czar. Great news for Alejandro Sabella’s pet player, the one who covers more air miles than any other each time the Selección get together. “I’m lucky that the club helps me out so much. Otherwise, between the time spent on the plane, the stopovers and what I spend on duty free, when I got to Argentina i’d be bleedin broke,” laughs the midfielder from Santa Fé, who’s still chewing over some of the setbacks he’s had in his career and the monkey he wants to get off his back in two years’ time. No two ways. A goal tatooed on the flesh of a guy who already missed out on the U-20 World Cup in 2005 (a broken wrist, in training) alongside Messi, the World Club Championship with Estudiantes (spitefulness by FIFA) and the World Cup in South Africa. Whatever they say, wherever he has to travel from, he’d make the trip, whether it be from the Ukraine or the Moon…
In large parts of La Plata you’re a god but in other parts there are murmurings every time they see your name on the squad sheet…
If you play at one of the big clubs, who the press always cover, people are more aware of you. Without wanting to belittle Estudiantes, Argieball is centred in Buenos Aires. When I made my debut, before Verón’s return, we were just another team and that didn’t help. It’s completely different if you play ten games or whatever for Boca or River. They didn’t even know who I was.
Do they still underestimate you?
You see the list, the names that are on there, and you’re reminded of where you came from. I’m proud to be on there. If I get the call up, I must have done something right. Each game for la Selección determines how you’re received..
Could it be that, in terms of exposure, Estudiantes occupy a similar position relative to the Big Five [Boca, River, Racing, Independiente, San Lorenzo] as the Ukranian league does to those in Spain, England, Italy, etc.?
It’s quite rare for a footballer to know where he’s going to end up and very few can choose. I’m happy here, we’re playing the Europa League… There’s always a battle to be fought.
And what’s football like here?
We’ve got a lot of South Americans in our team, which makes us different. Apart from three or four teams, they’re all quite physical, direct sides, and the quality of football suffers as a result. When we play in European competitions, it’s more even. That’s when we come back to the question of coverage: we were one goal away from knocking out Sporting Lisbon and getting to the semi-finals but all anyone could talk about was Bielsa’s Bilbao.
Still, you won the league in Argentina, you were at Bayern, you had a spell at Napoli, you’re the captain of Metalist, you play for the Selección… With Argentines generally being so competitive, what’s it like to always be battling for second place?
That’s one of the things the Argentines and Brazilians in the squad are always trying to get across to the other lads. It’s very difficult to knock Shakhtar Donetsk off their perch. Still, i’m not going to give up. Just being in the squad for the Selección isn’t enough: you’ve got to be at 100%, more even.
Then what’s it like crossing the globe knowing that you mightn’t even play? Against Paraguay and Perú, you were on the bench.
You wait for the call and you always want to play. You might get a bit annoyed if you don’t even get a few minutes on the pitch. The lads take the piss out of me, too, for all the travelling I have to do: “Ah you’re here? I thought you weren’t coming til tomorrow…” Sometimes i’m the first to leave home and the last to arrive…
You made your debut with the senior squad with Pekerman in Los Angeles in 2006…
And later I played for Basile; Batista called me up for the gold we won in Beijing; Maradona, too; and now Sabella’s in charge. Alejandro knows me well from my Estudiantes days.
So you’re not just Pachorrista, then. You’ve played for all of the recent managers…
Yeah, but because you don’t play for a big club… I haven’t got the same attention for my time in the Selección that others have. Lots of people don’t know i’ve been in squads for the last seven years. It’s even more complicated now that i’m in the Ukraine. Still, I was called up because of how i’ve been playing recently and for having played a part under previous managers.
Nonetheless, ten of your seventeen games have come under Sabella…
True, his arrival did me no harm. I have a different role now. I’ve played in difficult matches where we picked up important points. That doesn’t guarantee me a starting place, though, eh. Obviously not. We have great players who play in big clubs; others are very popular with the fans and they’re still not called up. I am. I’d like people to appreciate what I do on the pitch, instead of saying off the cuff ‘Eh, where the hell’s this bloke from?’ Remember, this already happened with Messi – even though he’s the best in the world and plays for Barcelona, people were still questioning what he was doing for the Selección. It’d be pretty crazy if they didn’t give me loads, too! And in 2010, when things were going really well for me at Sabella’s Estudiantes, I made the long list for the squad for South Africa but… ah well, I reckoned I was worth a shot.
For you it seems like playing in a World Cup is a question of ‘now or never’.
When you start to get an idea of what this sport is all about, you realise that World Cups are the most important thing going. Experiencing it personally is any footballer’s dream. I’d never forget it, i’m sure.
Like your tatoos…
I’ve got one big one that covers my whole arm and five or six more. Now I want another one.
What would it say?
If I get to play in a World Cup, it’ll say ‘Brazil 2014’. [laughs] I’ve already thought of where to put it.
And you’d get to play with Messi…
In 2005 [at the U-20 WC] it was me who was going to wear the number 10, but I got injured. Patricio Perez ended up wearing it but the World Cup belonged to Messi. It’s always stuck in my craw not to have been part of the team where he started to stamp his authority on the Selección. At least I had the honour of having been considered better than him [laughs].
With him in the team, is it a steal?
Amazement is for the public. They can suck it up all they want but his teammates shouldn’t be so taken aback… It’s ridiculous. We’re there everyday with him! We try to follow his example. If he keeps trying to improve, we should, too. Luckily I play in a position where I don’t have to mark him personally. For a defender, though, it must be humiliating. He always chooses exactly the right moment to make his move and he does it with incredible pace. I think Messi scoffs at Time…