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 May 8, 2002 | 1050 IST

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Argentina head South American challenge

For once Argentina, rather than four-times champions Brazil, lead South America's challenge at the World Cup. Despite being drawn in the toughest group they are favourites to win a third title.

The national team remain untouched by the situation at home, where football violence and the country's economic troubles have plunged Argentine domestic soccer into an unprecedented crisis.

Argentina swept through the marathon South American qualifying competition with 13 wins in 18 games and are unbeaten in their last 14 outings -- a record which goes back to July 2000 when they lost 3-1 to Brazil.

Marcelo Bielsa's team played the same fluent, attacking football whether they were in the tropical heat of Venezuela's oil capital Maracaibo, the thin air of Andean cities such as La Paz, the hostile surroundings of Paraguay's Defenders of the Chaco stadium or at home in Buenos Aires.

A midfield inspired by Juan Sebastian Veron, one of the world's most complete footballers, and the snarling and seasoned Diego Simeone provides the ammunition for a lethal attack headed by Lazio's Hernan Crespo, scorer of nine of their 42 goals in the qualifiers. Simeone was out of action for six months this season with a knee ligament injury.

Bielsa's biggest problem may be deciding which of strikers Crespo and Gabriel Batistuta to omit.

Bielsa appears to be convinced that the pair, two of the world's best strikers, are incompatible and that one will have to take an unfamiliar place on the substitutes' bench.

Batistuta, who says he will quit the national team after the World Cup, began the qualifiers as first choice but, after suffering a knee injury, lost his place to Crespo and was then unable to win it back.

The uncertainty is likely to continue until the start of the competition.

Batistuta has had an off-colour season with AS Roma and was not helped by a thigh injury which sidelined him for a month late last year.


The Argentines are nearly all experienced campaigners based with major European clubs, so much so that locally based players such as Boca Juniors' sublimely gifted midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme have not even been able to force their way into the national team.

On Monday, veteran striker Claudio Caniggia was named in an initial squad of 12 provided he recovers fully from an knee injury sustained during the Scottish Cup final on Sunday.

There was no place, however, for Bologna striker Julio Cruz who is unlikely to make the 23-man squad even if Caniggia fails to regain full fitness with Barcelona's Javier Saviola waiting in the wings.

Eleven individuals do not make a team and one of Bielsa's most important attributes is to have found his team base and stuck by it, instilling a close-knit atmosphere that would be the envy of many club sides.

Their unity will be needed from the start in the Far East when they tackle old foes England, Sweden and Nigeria in a daunting group F.

The fact that the vast majority of Argentina's team are based abroad has meant they have been little affected by the strife in their own country.

Like all walks of life, football has been affected by Argentina's political and economic crisis.

Players twice went on strike last year, saying clubs owed them millions in unpaid wages and bonuses. The Argentine Football Association has admitted it owes money to Bielsa, who said on Monday that he had never considered resigning.

This year, five people have been killed in soccer-related violence and in early March the government considered suspending the championship if the situation did not improve.


On the plus side, Argentina, who won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986, appeared to have discarded the more unpleasant side of their game.

The infamous quarter-final against England in 1966, Diego Maradona's Hand of God goal 20 years later and a tendency for violence and gamesmanship have often made them hugely unpopular with neutrals in the past.

When they hosted and won the competition in 1978, it was under the dark shadow of one of South America's most notorious military dictatorships.

In 1990, they became the first team to have two players sent off in a World Cup final and four years later the team was rocked by the Maradona doping scandal.

Times have changed.

Apart from the theatricals of Ariel Ortega and the menacing presence of Simeone, a player who seems instinctively to know how much he can get away with without being sent off, Argentina are no worse than any other modern, professional team.

They even picked up the Fair Play trophies at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the 2001 World Youth championships, which the country hosted and won in great style.

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