After 67 minutes of Argentina’s game with, or rather, match against Bolivia last Friday night, Carlos Tevez received the ball on the edge of the box with his back to goal. Not only that, the pass had come rolling swiftly along the grass so he could stop it with his foot with relative ease. This is important as it opened up several possibilities. He could pass the ball to a teammate, who in turn, given his proximity to the goal, could take a shot and hope the man in the gloves would not stop it. Alternatively he could shield the ball himself and trust in his own considerable skill, strength and punch to burst past the defender and fashion a shooting opportunity of his own. Another possibility was that he roll the ball back to the player who had so cleverly passed the ball to him in the first place so that his companion could have a more or less unobstructed shot at the goal. This move is known to erudites as a one-two as it consists essentially of two parts. The third part, however hypothetical, consists of a shot or a cross or a pass or even another one-two, perhaps with the same teammate, perhaps with another. There are all sorts of possibilities. Indeed, one is tempted to say that it is precisely this array of possibilities stemming from a simple situation – as opposed to the rather more limited potential concatenations involved in a tennis serve or a pitch, to give but two examples, although of course there are many more – that accounts for the popularity of association football.
The pass along the ground to the player’s feet allowed for all this. It gave him control of the situation in a way that a ball sent through the air would not have done. In such a case, it was much more probable that the goalkeeper, who is allowed to use his hands, would have plucked the ball out of the air like a slimy frog does a hairy fly, or a hairy frog does a slimy fly – neither the hair or the slime are particularly relevant, we admit – or it may even have rolled sadly behind the chalked touchline, bringing a definitive end to the possibility of a chance, not to mention a goal. For goals are important in football. They make it more probable that a team will win, thereby accruing points or advancing to the next round, and ultimately being presented with a trophy, thereby increasing one’s value in the market, and hence making it more probable that one will find a partner to reproduce with, or maybe even more than one. Hence we can see that the pass along the ground to Tevez’s feet was a veritable expression of the death drive. It is no coincidence that the Bishop of Barcelona has taken to condemning misplaced passes as abortions and contrary to God’s Will.
In the event, Carlos Tevez was tackled illegally by the Bolivian defender and a free kick was awarded. This was also an opportunity for the furthering of the human race, if not the nation of Bolivia, and while the possibilities such a situation offers are not as great as when the ball is in open play, it was still a positive outcome. The resulting free kick was taken by Lionel Messi, widely regarded as the best player plying this trade at this moment in history. His attempt bounced off the defensive wall and went out for a corner kick. Although a chance of a very different kind, it was nonetheless also a promising state of affairs.
That corner kick ended up in the goalkeeper’s hands, thus thwarting Argentina’s drive to the laurel-crowned harem in their hearts, temporarily at least. Amazingly, however, they did not seek to repeat the move. Despite its relative simplicity and the multitude of positive scenarios such a pass is likely to create, the team failed to recognise the path to a more precious future and onanistically wasted their seed, selfish Peters in a crowd failing to heed the cry of the cock.
Yet, oh dear handsome readers, should we really have been surprised? For it had taken them 67 minutes just to conjure such a situation. Despite Checho Batista’s much-vaunted ‘footballing idea’, after months of tramping around Europe with a gaggle of assistants and being stopped many times at the Old continent’s frontiers under suspicion of being a roving DVD pirateer; despite a year’s worth of ‘renovation’, of change; despite a month of training together; despite the inclusion of Cambiasso and Banega in the midfield, the tonic we were told – you all said – that would have had the Germans spinning on their axes like greased up spinning tops on a roulette wheel attached to a carousel pumping out Scooter tunes on Adrastea, the fastest moon in the solar system, kids; despite being at home in the first game in the first tournament to be played in their homeland for nearly a quarter of a century; despite being up against Bolivia; despite it all, they were rubbish.
Checho’s Guardiolan plan of playing Messi as a ‘false 9’ lasted a mere 45 minutes: at half time Cambiasso was replaced by Di María, and Argentina were now lining up exactly as the hopeless, clueless, insane, not-a-coach Maradona had seen fit a year before, with two in midfield, Di María out wide, and Messi behind the front two, which was really a front one as Lavezzi stayed way out on the right shanking crosses until he was hauled off. Meanwhile, noted philanthropist Javier Zanetti was doing a faithful enough impression of his previous performance in an Argentina jersey in a competitive game some two years before, when he was torn asunder by nimble, tough Paraguayans. by turning green and tucking his head into his shell. On the opposite flank, teammates found it hard to pick out Marcos Rojo as no-one was sure who he was.
Thankfully, Pablo ‘Captain of the Tour of Shame’ Zabaleta will take his place tonight. Then again, what’s the point? Are the team, and by extension, us, that is, we, likely to find more suitable life partners because the Captain of the Tour of Shame is playing? Perhaps. It’s worth a go. More important, however, is that the players try to repeat that fleeting moment of genius when the ball was rolled to Tevez’s feet and an array of possibilities presented itself, forked tongues eagerly licking out into the future, mocking destiny, praising God.
Not that those feet must necessarily belong to Carlos Tevez, mind, lest the dogmatic of you take these words of wisdom and set up an idolatrous church. No, for Carlos Tevez, after all the spittle, ink spilt and sandwiches left only half-nibbled on the counter such were the pueblo’s nerves, finally ended up starting the match. And what a start! Two minutes in, onside and directly in front of goal, he sent a header five or six yards wide. After four minutes, he dived in embarrassing fashion in the box. Then he disappeared for fifteen minutes, during which time he was only seen to appeal lamely for a supposed handball from a corner. He next popped up on the left wing but soon fell over, notwithstanding the absence of any actual challenge. At the 25 minute mark, he went on a good solo run into the box but he was soon crowded out. In the 37th minute, he was booked for charging into someone or other. “We’re seeing the Carlos Tevez of the World Cup qualifiers,” quoth the commentator. Not true, it was far worse than that.
Messi, on the other hand, had definitely left his mopey, slumped-shoulders qualifiers persona far behind him. However, the class he was showing not only made him stand out from the Bolivian players harrying after him, it also illuminated the gulf of class that set him apart from his own teammates. Like a bird trying to teach its young to hunt, he’d eviscerate his prey, leaving his teammates the simple task of finishing off the now but faintly-squawking mess of tattered green feathers. Nonetheless, whether it was Carlitos, Lavezzi or even Cambiasso, they always managed to make such a hash of the opportunity that the wretched creature could crawl off and recover.
Such opportunities were more rare than a non-talking parrot in a feel-good summer blockbuster, however. Batista brought seven forwards to the Copa América (Messi, Tevez, Aguero, Higuaín, Milito, Lavezzi and Di María) and has Messi as the number nine in a three man attack. Yet even in the second half when Argentina were desperately searching for a goal, much of the time there was no-one up front. They were way out wide, they were back in midfield, they were checking to see if their mistresses were sitting near to their wives in the stand, but where the striker was supposed to be there was a vacuum. We’ve all scoffed longer and harder than kilt-less Scotsman at a school sack race at Batista’s pretension to play like Barcelona, but on Friday it was clearer than ever: Messi was expected not just to be Messi but also to fill in as Xavi and Iniesta, too. (Mundoalbiceleste has a fine description of this we don’t care to improve on). It did not work.
Even though we don’t agree with his line-up, however, in fairness to Batista the real problem here is the players. Tactics only delimit a basic shape to the team and probably have more to do with defending and launching attacks than the actual creation of chances. The players he selected, with the exception of Rojo, all have considerable experience yet shirked all responsibility. This has been a constant feature of the team since the defeat to Brazil in the last Copa América in 2007, apart from a few games in the World Cup last year, when Diego had them believing they were champions. The refusal to step up means – even, say, after a bright start to a game – confidence drains out of the team until they no longer even know how to do the simplest things, as outlined in the 67th minute epiphany above. And God help them if they go behind, as against Brazil in Rosario in 2009 and Germany last year (in the third minute!)… The management team and the AFA’s constant elevation of Messi to beyond Maradona status hasn’t helped either. It’s given this weakest of groups another excuse to offload the ball in the middle of the pitch and hang back hoping someone else will sort things out.
On the other hand, what on earth Tevez and Lavezzi were up to last Friday night is anyone’s guess. In barely 20 minutes Agüero changed the game by actually making it look more like a game of football: he would interact with his teammates, he would pass, run and shoot. Apart from that, though, he looked tough and lean. His military hair-do oozed death drive. He won’t start tonight but that hardly matters. He’s keen to show he’s happy to be a sub. Thank Christ he’s currently angling for a move to a bigger house in Madrid. And what’s more, they’ll be playing in Colón’s ground, el cementerio de los elefantes. Hopefully the whiff of death will be sufficient motivation to give the Colombians a good rogering.