Being Sabella

Today we bring you a translation of a piece by Ignacio Fusco, of Olé and Don Julio. Pegamequemegusta has translated several interviews of his – with Pipo gorosito, Carles Rexach and Di Stéfano – as he can be quite combative and frequently gets the best out of his subjects. This is not an interview, however, rather Sabella’s interior monologue during the final few minutes of Argentina-Switzerland.

We enjoyed it and agree with it for the most part. Indeed, reports from Argentina’s closed training session today concur with several of the ideas attributed to Sabella here regarding team changes, with Demichelis set to come in for Fede Fernández, besides Basanta for the suspended Rojo. (No indication Palacio will start…). Tomorrow will be a slog, though, so best to kick back with a slick, smart piece of writing in the meantime. We hope to have done it justice. (Spanish readers can find the original here). 


Monologue of a despairing manager

Palacio on the left, Basanta behind him, Biglia in next to Mascherano, stick to Mascherano, Lucas! There! Stay there, right? Good. Di María over there, getting back and covering Zabaleta, that’s it, we’re there, we’re almost there, how much is left? Two? How much? One? Come on, vamos, in the bag! In the air they’re not getting a thing, sorted, relax, relax, it’s sorted. I told Palacio: you’re a midfielder who gets forward, not a forward who defends, the world is how you see it, put ’em under pressure ’cause they’ll make a mistake. We need space to play, them on the back foot, attack, attack, attack, head down, dribbling past, these kids are unbelievable, I can’t believe this, four of them go forward and the other two just sit there, they don’t talk to each other, kids, they’re kids, like a bunch of school kids. The ones up front don’t want to get back, no-one is getting back, check out the goal if you don’t believe me: Palacio won the ball, he gave it to Messi, Messi to Di María, goal. We waited and went for them, goal, Now we’re good, sorted, two wingers, four in the middle, they haven’t come near us for about half an hour, stay close to Mascherano, Lucas, please! Close, close, there! How much is left? Three! What do you mean three?! Where the hell’d he get three minutes from? Whistle, ref, it’s over! Corner. Corner. He gave them a corner. A corner, la puta que lo parió. Two years ago we played these lads and we beat them without breaking a sweat: Campagnaro, Fernández and Garay at the back: physical presence, height; Mascherano and el Chapu in the middle: garra, cover, a mean shift; Maxi and Sosa out wide: balance, collaboration; Messi and Agüero up front. Three-one we won. Three goals by Leo, all with space to play in, on the counter. They say he picks my team and today he’s barely had a shot. With me, you get predictable football; football can be predictable. The goalkeeper is going up. Their goalkeeper is going up for a header. I can’t believe this. Garay! The keeper’s going up, Garay! The one is illuminous yellow, you muppet, who do you think! Where’s Campagnaro? What the hell are you doing here, Campagnaro? This is the last move, it has to be, we’ll get Belgium and I’ll organise this lot, once and for all. In the first half they had a chance on the counter because Mascherano got distracted on a corner giving out to the others for taking their sweet time in getting back, the second time… Football gives you time to… Nerves are for the other team to worry about. Rojo is injured, I put Basanta on at left-back, all we need now is for Lavezzi and Higuaín to pick up knocks. Who’s taking it? Rodríguez? Rodríguez takes their corners? Made you made a note of that? How does he take them? Uruguayan. His parents are from Uruguay. Mark the keeper! This goes in and we lose on penos and he had two years and he couldn’t find his starting eleven, they’ll say, Messi was picking the team, he tried five at the back but he didn’t have the clout to stick with it, he brought Agüero and Higuaín even though they were crocked and brought no back-up number 9, why they’ll ask me. A bicycle kick by the keeper: holy shitballs. The rebound, the rebound! We’re Argentina, we don’t have to worry about the opposing team: pull the other one. Get out, Romero! Post. It hit the post. How much left? It hit the post. Dzemaili. Dzemaili was it? I told them, I told them, Dzemaili goes out wide, he finds space, he gets round the back. Who was marking him?! Campagnaro, what are you doing on the bench? These kids will be the death of me. The best world cup ever. The best world cup ever, Jaysus, Mary and Joseph. It’s over! It’s over! Now I’m going to tell the press about Palacio. What a fourth man in the middle can do. Get your rival on the back foot. Hang back. In the second half we played better, we were balanced. I’ll tell them that, too: balance, we were balanced. After everything we went through here, they’ll let me change things. El pueblo has to learn. Foresight, foresight. Even better if we get Belgium, they like to play it around more. One more match and I’m in the record books. Twenty days ago I was fifty-nine years old. Today I turned eighty-three.

Mascherano: “If Leo was picking the team…”

What to do with the vulgar? How are they to be presented to the reader — you, dear handsome one! — in such a form as to be in the least bit interesting? They cannot be left out altogether, for vulgar people meet one at every turn of life, and to leave them out would be to destroy the whole reality and probability of the story. There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be “not stupid,” kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one’s own—to be, in fact, “just like everyone else”. Hence, today pegamequemegusta has decided to bring you a translation. All week we tussled with the opinions of the vulgar and tried to strip the fat from our own vulgar thoughts, yet then there came a thin blade of coherence in the form of Mascherano’s interview in yesterday’s Olé.

It’s not the first time we’ve brought you a Mascherano interview. A little over three years ago, he spoke about his first season at Barcelona and his hopes for the Copa América, and that time he impressed us, too. Mascherano, who signed a new four-year deal with Barcelona the other day – with other players on the way out – is in good form these days. Indeed, we reckon he has improved his game since going there. On Sunday he was the only player to attempt more passes than Messi, completing 96 out of 102. As OptaJose said, contribution. Perhaps a man playing his third World Cup should have been able to organise his team-mates before the half-time break. Still, from what he says, it appears the whole game was a learning experience for many after a long time without a really Big Game.

Bah, vulgarity! This interview, then, was conducted by Marcelo Sottile and Hernán Claus, who do a fine job of probing him about the Twilight Zoney, Not-quite-a-boy-anymore Wonder, Messi. They ask if it’s Messi who’s picking the team, criticise the players’ performance as opposed to the tactics, and bring up the thorn-ridden question issue of the forwards helping out in defence, an unfavourable contrast constantly drawn by commentators throughout the tournament. They pursue him, but this is Javier Mascherano after all, so he’s not without a barbed response when they get a little soapy: “Did Leo look happier in the second half?” “I don’t know.. I play close to him but it’s not as if I spend my time staring at him.” Gol de Mascherano! 

Finally, a word on the text. Unlike some other interviews that appear on the net, this Olé piece is quite consistent; it’s not a cut-and-paste job. There are some strange jumps within answers but we suppose they are due to pauses. We tried to make him sound natural rather than translating his words literally, so the translation is about 300 words longer than the original. We think it’s worth a read, though. Disagree? Pegame, que me gusta.


  • Sabella has said you are one of the players he speaks to most about football. What do you make of Argentina so far, from the inside?
  • I’m more a manager than a player these days, amn’t I?.. Nah, seriously, me and Alejandro do talk a fair bit, mainly because I enjoy analysing games. It’s not as if we’re swapping ideas – he’s the manager after all. My take on things is always going to be different. And from my point of view, then, having seen the Bosnia match again, I can say that despite us not being a team that tends to dominate possession, we definitely have controlled matches better in the past. And in more favourable areas of the pitch… Sitting too far back, Bosnia allowed us to play our way out, but from the half-way line on, Leo and Kun were too isolated. We couldn’t open them up. Everyone could see that because if there’s one thing this team has shown is that it knows how to open teams up.
  • Did you watch the match again off your own bat or because the manager asked you to?
  • We saw it because it was on tv here. We were able to watch it all together, actually. That’s where you really start drawing conclusions. It was the same story with the Nigeria-Iran match.
  • Sabella admitted the starting line-up was a mistake. How much blame should go to the formation and how much to the players?
  • Alejandro made his decision based on the match we played against Bosnia last year. This time we used the same system, against the same team, and the match turned out different – even though that night Leo didn’t play. Sometimes the other team changes their set-up, too, and causes you problems. That night they put pressure on our defence and wouldn’t let us out and we had to bypass the midfield. If Bosnia hadn’t sat back this time, Leo might have received the ball in more space. Whatever about tactics, though, the players have a part to play, too. That’s why, after half-time, besides the substitutions, we were conscious of the need to play thirty yards further up the pitch.
  • You were spread out across the pitch without putting pressure on the man on the ball. Sabella had hardly asked you to do that.
  • Exactly. Not using the system properly meant we left ourselves with one extra player at the back even though we needed someone else up front.
  • Was the improvement down to the changes or the players?
  • When we talk about the changes, it’s important people understand it’s not just a question of names. Hugo (Campagnaro) and Maxi (Rodriguez) were having the same game the rest of us were. The thing is it’s not always possible to change your tactics and keep the same players. So you have to make substitutions. What came afterwards was a mixture of both things. The team is used to playing with four at the back. Besides, having two strikers means Leo can look for the ball in deeper positions, adding an extra man to the midfield. And when he gets the ball, as in the goal, he has two pass options as well as the possibility of using the others as a decoy and going on a run himself.
  • Did Sabella consult the players at half-time to see if you agreed?
  • No. Alejandro saw what had to be done and, obviously, he made the decision. Besides, in the middle of a match it’s hard for a player to figure out what’s needed. When half-time comes, the first thing you want to hear is what the manager has to say. He had a chat with his assistants and then he told us what we were going to do in the second half.
  • In the collective imagination, and especially after what Leo said later, the impression is that now Messi is picking the team.
  • It’s a fair question. I know Leo well: Messi would never pick or sideline any player. That’s not how he is. He’s a lad who would never choose one player over another, that’s not his buzz. In fact, he’d feel bad if he had to… Besides, there’s a manager there to make those decisions, so if he did, it would be completely disrespectful to Sabella. The truth of the matter is that the team is more used to playing one way because 90% of its matches were played that way. We’ve played with five at the back a couple of times, but once it was because we were playing at altitude, where you have to adapt… Another time, against Venezuela, it was because el Pipa [Higuaín] wasn’t available; and against Bosnia, because Messi wasn’t there… We know what Messi is like. The fact is the group respects him greatly and has a great deal of affection for Alejandro, too. Anything else would make him feel bad, it’d be a lack of respect. In any case, we’ve never done it before and we’re hardly going to start doing so in a World Cup.
  • In that respect, weren’t you surprised to see Messi so forthcoming in a World Cup press conference?
  • I have to be honest: I didn’t see the press conference.
  • He seemed to be setting terms, never mind the fact that his preferences are well-known.
  • Leo has always made clear how he is most comfortable playing, but he’s also been willing to accept other things, eh. Otherwise we wouldn’t have lined up against Bosnia as we did. It wouldn’t even have got to this; the team would have been different.
  • Can you see that from the outside it looks like la Selección has to play the way Messi likes otherwise he doesn’t respond? 
  • The public have to realise that Leo knows a thing or two about football, that’s why he’s the best player in the world. He’s not a fool, Messi…. He’s not some kid who just says “I want to play like this, no two ways about it”. He knows every team is different. Apart from that, he wants the best for Argentina. When he says he wants to play a certain way, he means from kick-off… But he knows that at different points during a game, or during the World Cup, the team is going to change around.
  • Would he accept a 4-4-2 if Argentina have to play against Germany in the quarters?
  • Yes, because Messi wants to win. Of course he would. Totally.
  • What about playing with five at the back again, would he take that?
  • If that’s what the team needs, yeah. It didn’t work out this time because the match didn’t allow it. Leo isn’t wedded to a 4-3-3, neither should Alejandro have got all the criticism he has, because whatever about the changes in the second half, it’s us who play the matches. The responsibility is shared, it’s not just a question of the manager. The players on the pitch weren’t getting the ball into the right positions. The manager changing things around should be considered a positive thing. Making two changes at half-time in a World Cup match when you’re winning is something to be commended. He was convinced the team would play better that way. That shows we don’t just have a smart manager, but an honest one – one who doesn’t care about what people might say about him, only in what’s best for the team.
  • Did Leo look happier in the second half? It looked like he suffered in the first half but by the end he was enjoying himself.
  • I don’t know. I play close to him but it’s not as if I spend my time staring at him. I’ve got enough things to worry about on the pitch… It’s clear that he did look a different player because he started to get on the ball more. That was because the other team couldn’t get so close to him… In the first half, one was marking him, and behind him two or three more were lined up. Later, they couldn’t do that as there were more players to take care of. That’s when Leo started to run things.
  • Has Sabella talked to you about changing systems during the World Cup?
  • Yes, and we’ve tried a few things out. The fact is we don’t really even play a 4-3-3. It’s more like a 4-2-2-2, or a 4-3-2-1… The systems are defined by how the players are set out. There’s one sure thing: we have three forwards and an inside left who’s practically another forward. Then there are two other midfielders, one whose there as a stopper and the other who’s somewhere between attack and defence. That’s the basic outline of this team, whatever the names on the pitch. That’s our team. We all know, though, that at some point we’ll probably have to play 4-4-2… or at some point in a given match, at least, we’ll have to, because not all matches and teams are the same… I’ll say it again: if Leo was the one picking the team, we wouldn’t have started the World Cup with five at the back.
  • Were you surprised at the change in formation right in the first match of the World Cup?
  • No, because we had worked on it in training. When the manager decides on a particular way of playing, he tells you why, because he has to convince the players. Not Mascherano or Messi, but whoever he’s talking to. That happens in any team in the world.
  • How much talk is there among the group of how little the forwards help out in defence? It’s better playing with three up front, but they have to work, too.
  • Because they’re three number nines… There are moves when they can come back to give a dig-out but others when they can’t… Besides, there’s another thing: playing with them, we can’t keep up. There is no transitional phase of play. We’re so direct it’s impossible to keep up, ’cause they go at light speed. If the full backs can’t get there, less so the midfielders… A lot of the time, if the move isn’t finished off, we’re left a little unbalanced. Usually, if an attack doesn’t work out we’re well set up, as the forwards cover the space in front of us, but when a move breaks down we have to have our wits about us and cool the flames, calm everything down (hay que abanicar, abanicar hasta que alguno vuelva) until one of them gets back. The thing is when you’ve gone sprinting forward, and especially on the big pitches they have in Brazil, it’s harder.
  • That would make things easier on the defence, alright.
  • Yeah, but the chances we create tend to be really good, and in a World Cup this open it’s not every team that can create the same amount of chances our forwards do. They can get a goal out of nothing.
  • In Messi do you see someone ready to make this his World Cup?
  • To me he looks really mature, but it’s a maturity I’ve seen him acquire in the last three or four years. It’s not as if he got here and changed from one minute to the next. I heard him saying in one interview he did that he’s older now, he sees things differently – and not just with regard to football. When you grow up, you see things clearer. For me, he’s at the perfect age, and he’s dying to pull off something incredible, because Messi is capable of pulling off something like that.
  • Is that precisely what this team needs? A while back you said that you were all stars at your clubs but with la Selección it was different.
  • Yeah, pretty much. I really think that, that’s why I said it. Elsewhere we’re stars. People might see you win trophies with Barcelona, with Real, with City, or in Italy or France, but the Selección is what matters. Of course it is… Here we are to give it another go. As we said before all this started, it’s in our hands. And in life the sweetest thing that can happen to you is that things are in your hands.
  • When 2006 ended, all we were left with was a picture of you crying.
  • Yeah, well, I was very young, then…
  • Maradona gave us an interview back then on the plane home and said: “I don’t want to see Batistuta crying again, or Mascherano in tears again. What we need is to get back to winning.”
  • Definitely. We all want, and need, Argentina to win. Day-to-day you start thinking and dreaming about Argentina making it to the final, just the idea that we could all experience something like that together… We hope and believe we can pull it off, but it’s tough… In Germany we did everything we could but the ball wouldn’t go in. It’s not easy to win a World Cup, but it’s not easy either to explain why because not everything is down to luck. Lots of things have to come together. First of all, though, you have to play well. Otherwise, no-one, not even luck is going to give you a helping hand.

Sabella & the Botany of Desire

Now, as we all know, a lack of variety in any given fruit, tuber or vegetable can leave it open to plague. Despite apparently having approached perfection, all the Golden Delicious in the world could be wiped out one swing of a giant, virulent boot, were the right formula to be found. All that is necessary is for the happy, popular, apparently indomitable fruit’s weaknesses to be found and exposed. One little worm pierces the skin and slides through to the core, guarded only by a lank-haired substitute at the second-best team in Ligue 1, in whose face it guffaws in righteous felony.

Darkened greenhouse-haunter that you are, dear reader, you are no doubt aware the options available in the contemporary apple market leave a lot to be desired. These days we are limited to a risible two or three possibilities, green, red, yellow or speckled, all with the same perfect shape and catchy, wholesome names like Granny Smith, Golden Delicious. They’re seductive, eye-catching, and to grace your presence they must pass more exams than a surgeon. Mis-shapen duds are discarded without mercy by men in shiny wellingtons and lab coats, men who sacrifice their sleep to make sure you never lose any upon being confronted by some monstrous deformity in the grocery section.

It wasn’t always thus, however. While our fiendish western minds may associate Afghanistan with the poppy, the papaver somniferum, it is also the birthplace of the apple. When left to its own devices, the apple is capable of an astounding range of forms: purple, blue, goldenrod and what have you, the gamut is extensive; likewise the sizes, which vary from ping-pong balls to squat, squash-like avatars (with apologies to Vishnu). A multicoloured valley of soaring appletree trunks must be an awesome sight, much like this World Cup (ahem). Yes, for Globocorp’s best efforts and a certain homogenisation in tactics notwithstanding, biodiversity cannot be checked; e’en as the cruel earth seeks to stifle a bubbling spring, it gusheth forth continuously.

Now, as we all know, a lack of variety in any given fruit, tuber or vegetable can leave it open to plague. Despite apparently having approached perfection, all the Golden Delicious in the world could be wiped out one swing of a giant, virulent boot, were the right formula to be found. All that is necessary is for the happy, popular, apparently indomitable fruit’s weaknesses to be found and exposed. One little worm pierces the skin and slides through to the core, guarded only by a lank-haired substitute at the second-best team in Ligue 1, in whose face it guffaws in righteous felony.

Yes, dear reader, the qualifiers ended a long time ago. An excessive, twitch-inducing amount of time has passed since Argentina qualified for Brazil, and even longer since they found their optimum starting eleven in the foundational 2-1 win over Colombia in Barranquilla, with Messi, Aguero, Higuaín and Di María running riot in the second half comeback. Caution was canker in the system; no more hedging their bets, Argentina had to take the game to their opponents and play to their plentiful attacking strengths. A comforting uniformity, a cozy and successful monotony descended on the Selección. A settled enough group, a standard starting eleven, consistent performances and results, a scapegoat, even, it had the steady hum of fluorescent supermarket aisle. Sabella was Granny Smith. And it was great… but oh so long ago, long enough, no doubt for an opposing manager to figure out how to out-play a particular system in what is essentially a final, Van Gaal-style. Now, with Higuaín and Gago having not much more than an hour of football between them in the last six weeks, reports indicate Sabella is going to abandon the usual 4-3-3/4-2-4 in favour of a 5-3-2.

The reasons for this may be illumined by an intriguing little article by Juan Pablo Sorín that went up on canchallena yesterday. He goes through the Bosnian team almost player for player: Misimovic “may look disinterested, with all the hurry of a bum,” but his through balls can be Bochini-esque at times and “he’s one of those guys that lives for assists and gets off on making the killer pass.” Becic, meanwhile, is “like a toll-booth, a barrier from where fresh attacks are launched.” Interesting metaphor from Juampi, who clearly doesn’t like to have coppers clinking in his pockets. The most important part of his analysis, however, and that which Sabella most likely has in mind is the question of the flanks. “Hajrović’s tireless running will cause Rojo trouble and restrict him from getting forward,” he says. “He plays on the right but ¡ojo! he’s left-footed. Plus, he’s been known to shoot from distance, whether from a dead ball or cutting in from the wing.”

The idea that Arg would change their style to accommodate another team made many pundits feel blight had already set in. The suggestion Argentina would play five defenders was akin to admission of a most shameful fear. Moreover, the stats showed Argentina had played 5-3-2 five times under Sabella (in 34 matches) and let in three headers, hence such a tactic would hardly guarantee safety from Džeko and Co. anyway. Plus, it clearly forgot all the good work done previously, shook the stability it had taken so long to achieve.

Tactically similar to Maradona – more offensive, even -, Sabella’s great strength has always been identified as having established a settled squad that runs smoothly. For if Checho wanted to be everyone’s friend, a Walker of the Earth, sending pictures of himself from various confused squad members’ kitchens, Sabella has succeeded admirably in absenting himself and overseeing chaos gently; a slightly distant, green-fingered figure who implanted the idea the Selección was a flattened hierarchy, even if it contained one particularly prized, passive-aggressive orchid. The first bag of cement fell when established squad members such as Banega and Sosa were left out of the 23 owing to their form, while Enzo Perez and Demichelis were included. Now it looks like he plans on building a patio. Everyone already knew Argentina’s weaknesses but shaking things up now would appear to undermine their strengths. Pegamequemgusta has no idea, of course, what chaos will dictate for the curiously-shaped florette coaxed out of Checho Batistenstein’s dead earth, but we’ll most definitely be looking for some opium before long.

* If you’re interested in reading more on the world of plants and fruits, check out Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. It’s great.