Argentina put faith in twin coaches
If Argentina win the World Cup this year it will be the ultimate triumph of a football association that is a beacon of light in the darkness of a politically corrupt and economically bankrupt country.
Much of the credit will belong to Jose Pekerman and Marcelo Bielsa, the coaches who in tandem run one of the best national team programmes in the world game.
Talking to Pekerman is like speaking with Sven-Goran Eriksson, the erudite England manager: measured, sensible views about the best way to handle top-level footballers and mould them into a world-class unit capable of challenging for the game's biggest prize.
A talk with Bielsa, on the other hand, is a near impossibility as he has not given a single one-to-one interview to any journalist, Argentine or otherwise, since he succeeded the much more famous Daniel Passarella as the national team trainer.
Bielsa, like Pekerman and Eriksson a run-of-the-mill player before moving into his true vocation as a coach, has been too busy steering Argentina through their best ever World Cup qualifying campaign.
The most intriguing of the 48 matches in the first round of the South Korea/Japan World Cup finals in less than four months' time is that between Bielsa's and Eriksson's sides.
Pekerman, the only triple world champion soccer coach after his three victories in four tournaments since 1995 with Argentina's under-20 side, speaks eloquently for both the Argentine coaches.
"In a footballing structure, changes are always difficult. I picked Marcelo for this job and we have been able to show with time that you can make positive changes when each one knows what he has to do. We try to function as a team," said Pekerman in a recent interview.
"There is no doubt that Marcelo is the technical strategist, he forms the team, he picks the players, he has the responsibility (for the senior team)," he said in Cardiff, where Bielsa's team met Wales in a World Cup warm-up friendly.
Bielsa the strategist paced the touchline like a caged lion during the match at the Millennium Stadium as if wanting to tinker with the team mechanism in the middle of the action while Pekerman looked on calmly from the stands.
Bielsa has been described as obsessive. But one of his players, former Arsenal defender Nelson Vivas said: "He once remarked that to say he's obsessive is to belittle his work."
When Passarella's term ended with World Cup quarter-final defeat to the Netherlands in France in 1998, Pekerman was the popular choice as his successor on the back of his then two world youth titles. He has since added last year's title on home soil to Qatar 1995 and Malaysia 1997.
But Pekerman, aware that handling the seniors was a quite different proposition, agreed with shrewd Argentine Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona to create the current set-up in which he heads the national teams but Bielsa is the senior side's trainer.
"There's not just one person. For example, I can be here (with the senior squad) and I know that the juniors are working for their (next) World Cup with the same philosophy even when I'm not around," Pekerman said.
This measured control of the Argentine game at international level, a progression of the system that helped Cesar Luis Menotti to win the country's first World Cup in 1978 and a far cry from the disorganisation of earlier eras, is harder to implement in the domestic game.
Argentina's economic and political crisis, however, appears to be concentrating the minds of the country's football clubs and while there is no fear of a complete collapse of one of the world's top five leagues, some important controlling steps must be taken.
"The AFA has asked for government intervention to help ensure the clubs do not spend more than they earn," Pekerman said.
He said a government official, appointed by the secretary for sports, would be part of a new controlling body.
Living way beyond their means was how Racing Club became bankrupt. They were on the verge of liquidation more than once only to be baled out by private money and win the Apertura first division title in December.
"There's no doubt that Racing have done things properly. They've reorganised," Pekerman said.
"But I'm not convinced about the manner in which Racing were allowed to carry on playing in the first place," he said, alluding to massive debts that do not appear ever to have been settled.
"A doubt remains about what happened with what occurred before (they were baled out). They were practically bankrupt, with a gigantic debt."
With the Argentine currency losing value after its recent flotation following a decade of parity with the dollar, the AFA has also asked the government for a reduction in match policing costs which are paid for by the clubs, Pekerman said.
Given the amount of hooligan behaviour from hard core "barras bravas" fans in domestic football in Argentina, clubs have to pay for a large security operation, especially for high-profile matches.
This fact was highlighted yet again last weekend when a fan was killed during fighting, which included a gun battle, between rival gangs of supporters just before kickoff in the derby between Racing Club and Independiente in the Buenos Aires suburb of Avellaneda.
Pekerman dismissed any suggestion of the death of Argentine football itself.
"The country has had many of these crises. Football is one of those activities that always survives. It has a very big capacity for regeneration," he said,
"In each championship new stars always appear."
The immediate reaction of European soccer enthusiasts to news of the Argentine crisis was to expect a larger than ever exodus of talent to big clubs in Europe, sold off fast at bargain prices for much-needed cash.
But Pekerman said Argentina's policy of encouraging young talent to develop at home and mature into first division players before widening their horizons would remain their credo.
"Adolescents need the protection of their (known) environment," he said.
There have been cases of Brazilian and African players moving too soon and being abandoned by clubs and agents when the failed to make the grade.
"They dream of getting to Europe but in Argentina they look to getting into the first division (team at their clubs) first. Then they think about a transfer. They don't want to leave young," Pekerman said.