With Argentina now qualified for tomorrow’s World Cup final, manager Alejandro Sabella will leave the national team regardless of the result. This is a piece I penned before the tournament about Sabella, his history in English football, and the selection headache he had to get right.
Some readers may remember the name of Harry Haslam, but I’ll forgive you if not. Even in his day, he wasn’t that famous. Back in the late seventies though, Haslam was, what would probably be described now as, a ‘visionary’ manager. Argentina had just won the World Cup and as then manager of Sheffield United, Haslam was to pioneer the move to bring some of the South American country’s stars to play in English football.
United not were not a particularly wealthy club, so although he was thought to be instrumental in the move to take Ossie Ardilles and Ricardo Villa to Spurs, the Yorkshire club were shopping at a different level. Pursuing his aspiration, Haslam undertook a scouting trip to South America, and at one of the games he took in, a 17 year old mop-haired player took his eye. The player’s club was Argentinos Juniors and Haslam was so impressed, he immediately negotiated a deal to take the player back to Yorkshire with him. Unfortunately, the Blades couldn’t finance the transfer. The £200,000 required was, in those days, an awful lot of money for a club of United’s size. The deal fell through.
Disappointed but undeterred, Haslam then moved on to River Plate and spotted another talent. This time, the club backed his judgement, stumped up the £160,000 fee and signed the player. Haslam’s plan was to use the young Argentine to replace local hero Tony Currie. It was to be a difficult task, but his elegance, enterprise and application was appreciated and the fans embraced him. To this day, he is remembered as a bit of a legend at Bramall Lane. He stayed at the club for two seasons, before being sold on to Leeds United for a healthy profit.
Whilst down in London Ardilles and Villa were revolutionising the English game, things were tougher up north, and the South American never really hit the heights with Leeds. He returned to Argentina and Estudiantes after just a single year and twenty-three games at Elland Road. His name was Alejando (Alex) Sabella. Oh, by the way, you may have heard of the player that Sheffield United missed out on for the sake of an extra £40,000. His name is Diego Armando Maradona. Yep, that Maradonna.
So, what’s all that got to do with Carlos Tevez and the Argentine national team? Well, Sabella is now the national coach and his judgment seems certain to mean that Tevez will miss out on selection for this year’s World Cup tournament in Brazil. Sabella was given the job back in 2011. At the time he had won the Copa Liberatadores with Estudiantes and was rumoured to be primed for a move to UAE club Al-Jazira. Fate took a turn however when the national coach at the time however, Sergio Batista, lost his job as Argentina lost a Copa America quarter-final to Uruguay in their own country.
Sabella was appointed with the immediate requirement of negotiating the myriad games that comprise South American World Cup qualifying tournament. The eternal question was of course, how to get the best out of Lionel Messi. By game four of the tournament, Argentina were struggling. Things hadn’t been going well. Losing to Venezuela and drawing at home to Bolivia is not what the country required. Now they were a goal down at half-time to Colombia as well. Things simply had to change and decisive action was required.
Sabella introduced Aguero for Tevez and by the full time, Argentina had turned the game around with both Messi and Aguero netting. Sabella had found a formula that worked for Messi, and Argentina’s qualifying playbook was launched. They sailed through the remainder of the tournament and finished by topping the league. The success however meant there was little room for Tevez, and with the selection of the group to travel to near neighbours Brazil drawing ever closer, the chances of a reprieve appear slim. Whilst there is always a logical approach to take Tevez along as cover, Sabella is minded not to have a potentially disgruntled player on board that may disturb the unity of the group. The mood music in the country however is less than ecstatic at the prospect of ‘Carlitos’ missing out.
Unlike Messi, and to some extent Aguero and Higuain, Tevez is very much seen as a ‘player of the people.’ Much as with Maradonna, he’s appreciated as someone who has fought his way up from the poverty-stricken areas of the country. Whereas the development of Messi has largely took place in the cosseted environment of Europe, Tevez is seen as having that pure ‘made in Argentina’ blood coursing through him, with all that entails. Such a story attracts due love from his countrymen. England fans find it difficult to appreciate why the ‘hand of God’ goal is often given as much reverence in Argentina as the mazy, dribbling one that followed it from the same player. It’s simply because, the upstart picking the pocket of the rich is very much a hero of the poor. It’s a little akin to Robin Hood without the bow and arrows perhaps. It’s the street urchin cocking a snook at the the well to do. Tevez benefits from a similar sort of adoration. The Juventus player’s reaction to his probable exclusion has only cemented such feeling.
Tevez has revealed that he won’t be travelling to the tournament as a spectator if not selected, having already booked time for his family at Disney World. That said it shouldn’t be regarded as in any way a snub to his country. “I don’t think I will watch my national team play at the World Cup,” he said to Cronica.com.ar. “I’ve already bought tickets to go with my wife and my three children to Disney World. They deserve that trip and I have very clear in my mind where my place is. I will nevertheless be Argentina’s No. 1 fan.” One person delighted by the prospect of Tevez resting throughout the summer however is his club manager, Antonio Conte. The Juventus boss has declared that himself delighted that Sabella isn’t picking him, “that way he can remain with us to train. We already have a lot of players on international duty.” With 18 goals in 30 starts for the Serie A club, it’s not difficult to understand why ‘The Old Lady’ wants to look after her boy.
Back in Argentina however, there’s popular support in the country for Sabella to relent and select Tevez. It’s a pressure that his predecessor, Batista felt unable to resist. After dropping the player, he relented and succumbed to the demands to select the Juve forward. It was probably the move that cost him his job. Sabella will come under similar strains. Tango musician Daniel Ursini has even penned a lament to Sabella asking him to reconsider. Called ‘Sabella, you’ve forgotten Carlitos’ it includes the line “You can’t be so stupid as to leave out one of Argentina’s most popular players.” With this in mind, Sabella will doubtless be aware of the ridicule he will face should Argentina perform badly. Carlitos will be the ghost at the banquet. In a not unsurprising political move, the Argentine FA , as always with such bodies, is having a mind to covering itself in case of a disaster. Julio Grondona, the long-time president of Argentina’s FA, has publically declared that team selection is solely down to Sabella. There’ll be no ‘mea culpa’ support from that particular quarter.
So will Sabella remain strong to his beliefs. Logically, it seems the sensible approach. Messi and Aguero mesh into an attractive blend, and their style also compliments the predatory instincts of Gonzalo Higuain. With Palacio and Lavezzi then as back up strikers, there seems little room for Tevez without elbowing one of these players out of the squad. Additionally, Tevez’s international record is not that outstanding. Thirteen goals in 64 appearances compares less than favourably with Messi’s 37 in 84 and Aguero’s 21 in 50.
“It is tough to see any surprises in the World Cup list,” Sabella has made clear. “A friend tells me that in Argentina we are all doctors and coaches… I will not talk about those not called up.” He also recognises the huge task before him, and the lack of understanding that will be apparent should Argentina come up short. “We have the best player in the world [Lionel Messi], and we are also playing on the patio of our house; but the problem is that the owner of the house is the team that is the biggest champion,” he commented.
When he takes La Albiceleste to visit his neighbours in June, Sabella will almost certainly do so without Tevez. Sometimes you end up with the right player, but sometimes you miss out on the real star. Just ask Harry Haslam.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced fro the ‘offsiderulepodcast’ website).