Brazil are not the only team that will take to the pitch with the expectations of a nation firmly resting on their shoulders; neighbours – and fierce rivals – Argentina, will need to lift the World Cup trophy on July 13th if they are to satisfy the 41 million strong ‘La Albiceleste’ supporters.
Lionel Messi will lead the side onto the field of the iconic Estádio Maracanã against debutants Bosnia and Herzegovina. Little under a month later, Messi will hope to be in the same stadium with the World Cup trophy held aloft in a sea of confetti – thus ending a 21 year drought for the Argentines.
In recent years, Argentina have thrived in youth tournaments having won both the 2005 and 2007 u-20 World Cup, as well as receiving gold medals at the Olympics on two occasions – 2004 and 2008. However, success at senior level has alluded them and the patience of a nation is being tested.
The date; July 4th 1993, Gabriel Batistuta majestically turns the ball past the Mexican defence and places a left footed effort into the back of the net. Pure euphoria ensues. The Argentines making sure every moment is savoured as they are crowned Copa America champions for a record 14th time. Little over 20 years later and the Argentines are yet to replicate that level of ecstasy.
Six Copa Americas, five World Cups and two Confederations Cups have all been contested by Argentina since their last triumph and on each occasion they fell short of expectations. Two decades have past without a World Cup final – or semis for that matter. A sombre nation.
Now an attractive footballing side managed by Alejandro Sabella has given the nation hope – aspirations to be world champions for the third time. A talented group of footballers that have been in the making for the past six years. Nine of the current squad were among those to beat Nigeria in the Olympics final – players included; Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay, among others.
However, as they are the oldest squad at the World Cup with an average age of 28.9, expectations are high as there is a realisation that if Argentina do not succeed this year that the chance may be gone for some time to come. The youngest player in the squad being left-back, Marcos Rojo (24). The Argentines possess an attacking threat like no other in the competition with Messi – Gonzalo Higuain – Aguero netting 24 goals in qualifying between them; ten, nine and five respectively.
Praised for the attacking nature but criticised for the defensive frailties of their game, Argentine supporters do not appear to be reliant on goalkeeper Sergio Romero. With 47 caps for his country, Romero has been first choice for a number of years. The lack of confidence in him is harrowing, yet it may be unjustified. It is evident that Argentina’s defence isn’t quite as talented as their attack but nevertheless they only conceded 15 goals in 16 qualifying games in the CONMEBOL region and if there is an apparent weakness in the squad, it’s the lack of depth.
Argentina have been gifted a relatively unchallenging group in which they will play Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria and Iran. Failure to finish on maximum points would be deemed disappointing. While it will instill confidence within the camp, Sabella will have to guard against complacency in the knockout rounds and if he can then success may not be beyond them. A nation holds its breath.