30 June 2011

Copa America: the groups, the teams, the players

Joseph Sexton analyses the strengths and weaknesses of the Copa America contenders.
Pic: © Reuters

With the 43rd Copa America about to kick off, every side has strengths to bring to the table but what could be their downfall?

Group A 

Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bolivia 

On the face of it, Group A is probably the easiest of the three groups to call. Argentina, hosts and tournament favourites have too much quality and cohesiveness about about them to have any major worries in topping the section.

Equally, it seems a no-brainer to call Colombia for the second automatic spot. Sleeping giants, the continents’ greatest underachievers may find goals taxingly hard to come by but they should prove too strong for both.......................... Read the full article here on STV

Copa America 2011: tournament preview

My tournament preview for STV

Joseph Sexton gives you the lowdown on the 43rd South American championship. 

Gonzalo Higuain will be hoping to make his mark for Argentina. Pic: © Reuters

Just days before the 43rd Copa América kicks off in Argentina, we were treated to ugly scenes in Buenos Aires as the unthinkable happened: River Plate- the Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United rolled into one of this football crazy nation- were relegated to the Nacional B, Argentina’s second tier, for the first time in their history.

Hundreds of hooligans, the notorious barras bravas, rioted as their demotion was confirmed, using the seating of the Monumental stadium as missiles and fighting running battles with police outside the ground. This is the dark side of football in Argentina, whose domestic game is plagued by fan violence and these images were beamed across the planet.

Don’t let this fool you, however; Copa América 2011 looks set to be a festival of a football, and a fantastic tournament for those fans watching around the world or lucky enough to be there in the flesh.

Football violence in Argentina is strictly a domestic affair, largely between rivals of the bigger Buenos Aires sides but also internecine amongst groups within each particular team’s support. Rivalries are set aside when it comes to watching the albiceleste however; the national team unites all supporters behind the same banner.

One of the most interesting things about this year’s Copa América- and we’ll come to the football itself in a moment- is the AFA’s laudable decision to take the tournament to the country, to the far-flung provinces. Football, like the country as a whole, has traditionally been a highly centralised affair with not just River and Boca, but also clubs like Velez Sársfield, Independiente, Racing Club, San Lorenzo, Argentinos Juniors, Hurácan and others from the capital mainstays in the top-flight and the battles for local and continental honours. This is hardly surprising, given that more than a third of Argentina’s 41m population lives in the greater Buenos Aires area. And yet in this year’s tournament only one game will be played in the capital; the final, on July 24th, at the Monumental.

This is to applauded.

Instead this year’s Copa will be spread out across this vast country. Only Córdoba in the centre, the country’s second largest urban centre, could be deemed a major city. Many are not even home to top flight football clubs; neighbouring Jujuy and Salta- in the far away northwestern corner are much closer to La Paz and Asunción than Buenos Aires, and only marginally less further from the Peruvian capital, Lima- both fit into this category.

Further to the south, another two neighbours along the Chilean frontier, Mendoza and San Juan- the former home to Godoy Cruz, one of the most successful provincial sides of recent years- will also host games. The only two cities within striking distance of the capital with that honour are Santa Fé and La Plata, the latter home to the 2009 Libertadores cup winners, Estudiantes. As the traditional big guns struggle, this decision should help further the spread the footballing power beyond the capital.

Of course, most readers here will be watching the games on satellite but there is still plenty for them to delight in. Argentina have named their strongest possible squad, and will be going all out to win this one on home turf. They boast an an attack to die for, including double Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi. So strong, indeed, is there attack that it looked likely until a couple of weeks ago that Carlos Tévez would miss the cut. The midfield also contains more bite and creativity than it did at the World Cup, where they were completely over run in the centre by Germany.

Brazil are at a more transitional stage of their development, but words like ‘transition’ are relative in this context. Up front they boast the current poster boy of South American football, Neymar; fresh from his mesmerising display as Santos claimed the Libertadores last week, he’ll be joined in the starting XI by Milan duo Alexandre Pato and Robinho.

The latter may have disappointed at Manchester City, and has blown hot and cold in Europe at club level over the years, but he always brings his A game for the seleçao. Providing the bullets will be Neymar’s club team-mate, Paulo Henrique Ganso, a clever technician with home the forward has an almost telepathic understanding. With a much more creative midfield and a backline that- both in the starting XI and reserve- no side in international football even comes close to, they would appear to have all the ingredients needed to win their fifth Copa América from the last six contested.

Uruguay were a revelation at last year’s World Cup, after struggling to make it to the finals. With Edinson Cavani on fire, and Luís Suárez carrying on where he left off at Ajax in the Premier League, they have a potentially lethal attack wedded to their overall solidity. And if they might have upset some neutrals last summer in the manner of their victory over Ghana last summer, few teams got the pulses racing of those same neutrals than swashbuckling Chile.

Chile have recently endured a change of coach, with the popular and attack-minded Argentine Marcelo Bielsa stepping down in February, but they have got a stronger squad in place this time round and should add some extra defensive solidity under Claudio Borghi. And that’s not forgetting the emergence of Alexis Sánchez, who is now a truly world class talent.

Though many in Europe rank Uruguay as the best equipped outsider to win (and this would put them back ahead of Argentina as the most successful team in the competition’s history), my feeling is that Chile will present the biggest threat to Brazil and Argentina. At any rate, both look likely to occupy the top two slots in their group, leaving them with an excellent chance of pushing on to make the semi finals.

Paraguay remain solid, and excelled to reach their first-ever world cup quarter final in South Africa, but are carrying some old legs within the squad and lack the same degree of firepower as the two sides in Group C. They will surely follow Brazil out of their group, and their dogged, obdurate nature will make them a tough outfit to break down.

It is difficult to say what we can expect from Mexico in Group C. Having decided to travel with a largely under-23 squad, they had five of their players suspended three weeks ago for testing positive to a banned substance. Then on Monday, amidst celebrations following the senior side’s remarkable comeback last Saturday to claim the CONCACAF Gold Cup against the USA, a further eight of the Copa squad were suspended by their federation for breaking a curfew and brining ladies of the night to the team hotel; including more than one of the overage players selected. With Peru in rag order, you would still have to rate their chances of getting through as one of the better ranked sides finishing third.

Back in Argentina’s group, Colombia look good to claim second place. Remarkably, for a side featuring FC Porto’s prolific Rademal Falcão, they have struggled for goals in recent years. They will have to find a way to better make use of his goal threat if they are to make any headway at the business end of this year’s competition.

So although many will rightly have Argentina and Brazil as their favourites, they aren’t going to have it all their own way. The pressure on Argentina will be immense, both as hosts and also given their 18 year drought at senior level.

Brazil, some argue, may lack the steel of that formidable Dunga side; who were, in objective, results-based terms a match for Spain in last four year World Cup cycle. As unloved as that side was by some for their counter-attacking style, it took a spectacularly uncharacteristic self-implosion for them to throw it away against Holland in that quarter final last june. Such has been the overall rise in the standard of the continent’s less-heralded sides over the past decade and a half, neither can afford to be at anything but their best if we are to see the final that most are predicting.

What we have kicking off with the host’s encounter with Bolivia in La Plata has the makings of a pure footballing pageant. Argentina has the greatest and loudest supporter culture of any country on the continent, full of song, colour and drama. With the violence and ugliness pushed to the sidelines for the next three weeks, everything in place for us to have a Copa América to remember.

28 June 2011

Copa América preview

This was my tournament preview for Eircome Sports Hub

Original article HERE

In recent weeks the world has seen the ugly side of Argentine football. As the most successful club in the country’s history, River Plate, sank to relegation the contemptible scenes- sadly, all too familiar in domestic football there- attracted worldwide attention. In the first leg of their promotion/relegation play-off away at Belgrano, scores of barras bravas (hooligans who infest the structures of the clubs themselves) poured onto the field and threatened the players before making their way back into the crowd. Last Sunday in the return leg, a banner reading ‘Kill or Die’ outside the Estadio Monumental made their feelings clear. As the unthinkable became reality, River supporters tore their seats up in disgust and left a trail of destruction on the streets after the game. Fears that the Monumental might not be ready for the tournament were greatly exaggerated though; indeed the capital will only host one game in this 43rd Copa América, the final itself.

And this brings us onto happier matters; how this might just be the greatest edition of the world’s oldest international tournament to date. Bearing in mind that the scenes which shame domestic football in this country are unlikely to be a factor, the reasons for this are twofold.

One is that AFA has made the enlightened move of bringing the game to the people, and to the provinces. This is no small matter in a country that, despite its size and population, is nearly as centralised as its tiny neighbour, Uruguay. Buenos Aires dominates the local footballing landscape, but in truth this push for decentralisation both recognises and should accelerate existing trends within domestic football there.

And so it is that we will see games in disparate locations like Jujuy and Salta in the far northwest, closer to Peru than the capital. Further down along on the Chilean frontier, San Juan and Mendoza- the latter significantly home to one of provincial football’s great recent success stories, Godoy Cruz- as well the more central Cordoba and Santa Fé. Finally, games will also be hosted in La Plata, an hour south of Buenos Aires, and home to most successful club in recent seasons; Juan Sebastian Veron’s Estudiantes, who won the league last year having worn the continental crown in 2009. From a structural standpoint, it’s going to be a fascinating tournament.

But equally, from a footballing point of view, this year’s Copa América could hardly be more mouthwatering. There has never been a time when the continent could boast such strength in depth. While Brazil and Argentina remain the undisputed favourites, there are many other teams to look for here. For this, we can thank the marathon CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying tournament, which has raised the standard across the continent as a whole to unprecedented levels. Who would have predicted 20 years ago that Ecuador would be producing players of the quality of Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia? They might not have made last year’s world cup, but qualifying in 2002 and 2006 (reaching the last 16 in the latter) was no fluke as that country’s football continues to grow. Even baseball crazy Venezuela, hosts of the last Copa in 2007 and once the San Marino of the region, will be using this year’s Copa as a springboard to making their assault on World Cup qualification in 2014. In the 2010 qualifiers, indications of their improvement could be seen as they held a rampant Brazil side to a draw on away ground. Uruguay, of course, struggled to to even get there via a playoff but turned out to be one of the revelations of last summer’s World Cup.

But it remains true that it is hard to look beyond Brazil and Argentina. The hosts haven’t won this trophy in 18 years, and indeed will be mindful that Uruguay could again overtake them at the top of the role of honour should they triumph here. Their case looks good. Coach Sergio ‘Checho’ Batista seems to have hit upon his own imitation of the Barcelona style, and is finally getting the best out of Lionel Messi. Their options up front are the envy of world football. Despite rumours that Carlos Tévez- so nearly omitted altogether both on footballing grounds and due to his disruptive presence- may start tonight appear wide of the mark. Checho is likely to persist with Angel Di María and Napoli’s Ezequiel Lavezzi alongside Messi, a fluid frontline that has served him well to date. This means that stellar figures such as Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Diego Milito may well be keeping Manchester City’s talisman company on the bench. With a much more balanced midfield trade-off between tenacity and creativity than we saw in the latter stages of last year’s World Cup, they are also the best served in that area of the field. The backline remains a worry, however. Although Javier Zanetti, a surprise absentee from South Africa will bolster that area, they are poorly served both in goal and at centre back. What a pity that Nicolas Otamendi, impressive in his debut season for Porto, misses out.

Brazil are at an interesting stage in their development. Upon taking the helm, Mano Manezes’ brief was to inject some badly needed creativity in the middle of the park, and while this process has had its ups and downs, it’s beginning to bear fruit. It’s debatable whether a talent such as Santos’ playmaker, Paulo Henrique Ganso, would have ever featured in a Dunga team; and along with Robinho and his Copa Libertadores winning club mate, the current golden boy of South American football, Neymar they will be fluid in attack. Playing Alexandre Pato, hardly an orthodox number 9, through the centre certainly makes things fascinating. And there is still no team in international football with a back 5, both starting and in reserve, to match theirs.

We will deal with the groups in due course, but not to mention Chile and Uruguay at this point would be sacrilege. In a season where Alexis Sánchez has made the transition from promising talent to bonafide superstar, the side whose adventurous spirit captured many a neutral heart last summer look even more dangerous here. It’s a shame that coach Marcelo Bielsa has departed due to political infighting within the federation, but their new coach Claudio Borghi will add defensive solidity without stymying their attacking threats. The astute and tough-tackling Sevilla midfielder Gary Medel, one of the few men in recent memory to make Xavi Hernández flinch, will patrol the middle of the park. For this writer, they represent the most likely side to rain on the establishment’s parade here.

Right behind them will be Uruguay, whom they face-off against in the group stage. Coach Oscar Washington Tabárez’s tactically flexibility was a key component of their success last summer. Aside from a shock defeat in Estonia in March, they still seem to perform better against European opposition than South American; although, in light of their struggles in reaching South Africa they are now well placed to buck that trend. In a side packed with quality, from the front back to the likes of captain Diego Lugano, Diego Godín, Nicolas Lodeiro and Walter Gargano, all eyes will be on Diego Forlán. He went from hero to persona non grata at Atlético Madrid last term, enduring a torrid season. With the emergence of Edinson Cavani and the continued excellence of Luís Suárez, that pressure to lead the line has been lifted. If he can shrug off his club woes and bring spark to this attack, than we’re looking at a unit that runs Argentina’s close for firepower.

Group by Group:

Group A

Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bolivia

Argentina, quite rightly, will fancy their chances of topping this group. They open the tournament tonight against Bolivia, hoping to erase the painful memory of a 6-1 defeat at altitude away to their opponents two years ago. Colombia should join them, but the continent’s sleeping giants will need to up their game significantly to make a serious impression on this tournament. That a man like Rademal Falcão, who netted 39 times last season for Porto (including a record 18 in their march to the Europa League), has managed a mere 7 in 28 international starts tells you a lot about where their problems lie; they simply don’t score enough goals. Whether their slow, short-passing game suits the striker’s strengths is an open-and-shut debate. In the centre, Freddy Guarín, once a teenage prodigy who lost his way for a while, enjoyed a renaissance in his third year at Porto under the guidance of André Villas-Boas. With all due respect to the remaining sides, Costa Rica will be fielding a weakened selection having just competed in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and along with Bolivia, it’s hard to see either sneaking through as one of the two best-ranked third-placed sides.

Group B

Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, Venezuela

Brazil are favourites to progress along with Paraguay, and this is probably justified. But despite reaching the World Cup quarter-finals last year, Paraguay are unlikely to have it all their own way. Like Ecuador, they are in the process of renewal but could be carrying too many of the old guns. Venezuela have emerged as a competitive side in recent years, and will be hoping to rank third. Outside of the group winners, this is surely the hardest group to call.

Group C

Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Mexico

On the face of, this might look to be the most competitive group of the lot, but appearances can be misleading. It would be a surprise if Chile and Uruguay fail to make up the automatic positions. It’s hard to know what we can expect of Mexico. Their stunning Gold Cup victory last Saturday was built on their recent success at underage level, and the idea here was to bring an under-23 squad supplemented by 5 overage age players. Two weeks ago, however, 5 of their players were suspended after testing positive for a banned substance; the Mexican federation is currently fighting their case, claiming that the substance was innocently ingested through meat. Then, just two days after that memorable victory over the USA, 8 more players (including senior defender Jonathan dos Santos) were suspended after prostitutes they brought back to the team hotel in a stopover in Ecuador ransacked the players’ rooms. They should be good to make it as one of the best third-placed teams however, as Peru- already at something of a low ebb- will be without Claudio Pizarro and have key figure such as Jefferson Fárfan, Pablo Guerrero and Juan Vargas all struggling for fitness. Don’t expect much of an impact from the Andean side here.

Ones to Watch:

Ever Banega & Javier Pastore (Argentina) Pastore has come of age this season for Palermo, and although he was included in Diego Maradona’s World Cup squad last summer, arguably the most striking omission then was Valencia’s Ever Banega. Banega struggled to adapt to European football initially, and might have become on those talents who suffer from making the jump too early. But for almost two and a half years now he has consistently gone about his business and developed into the sort of player we’d all hoped he’d become. Squat, with quick feet and a keen eye for a pass, his distribution from the middle has become a defining feature of Batista’s Argentina. But such has been the emergence of Pastore that his place in the starting XI (presuming Checho choose to retain the solidity offered by Javier Mascherano and Esteban Cambiasso) is under real threat. Both players have the capability to light up this tournament. Which one seizes the opportunity to do so will be an intriguing side story.

Neymar & Paulo Henrique Ganso (Brazil) Chuck D once implored us not to believe the hype, but Neymar has shown himself capable of backing up the hyperbolé lashed on him; and then some. With fouls given so readily in domestic Brazilian football, question marks remained about his ability to thrive on the world stage, given his infuriating propensity to dive. But Neymar is more than capable of looking after himself; being offered little protection from the referee but with his Nacional marker on a yellow and looking likely to pick a second in the first leg of the Libertadores Cup Final, Neymar hastened his opponent’s premature departure with a snide piece of revenge, leaving a gash on that hatchet man’s thigh. In the second leg, with Ganso fit again, the pair ran riot in a sublime display of pressing and attacking wizardry which the 2-1 scoreline did scant justice to. Ganso is exactly the sort of midfield maestro the seleçao have lacked in recent times, and his clever, probing passes could really bring the best out of a fluid frontline. With Neymar always looking to cut in from wide, and with his favoured trick of shaping to curl to the far-post before clipping it home near no less bewilderingly effective for being utterly predictable, this pair will give opposing defences twisted blood as they struggle to get to grips with them.

Edinson Cavani (Uruguay) What more can be written about El Matador that hasn’t been already? Well, for those who don’t follow Serie A closely, this man was the success story of the season. Having predominantly played out wide for club and country, Walter Mazzari’s decision to employ him through the middle for Napoli meant Fabio Quagliarella’s defection to Juventus was scarcely noticed. He announced himself with a brace on his Serie A debut, and has hardly stopped scoring since. Whether it be a hat-trick of headers against Juve, another hat-trick in a pulsating 4-3 win over Lazio, or that stunning 95th minute virtuoso effort to clinch a 1-0 victory over Lecce, he has been nothing short of phenomenal. Superb in the air, and good with both feet, it’s not just in front of goal that he excels; his work in the build-up play and defensively are both impressive too. Ireland supporters got a chance to witness his ability at the Aviva last March, and should Uruguay progress as expected, he represents good value to finish as top scorer here.

Rademal Falcão (Colombia) As mentioned already, Falcão has struggled to make the same impact internationally as he has at club level, but that’s not all down to his own efforts. If Colombia have the good sense to play to his strengths, he can have a wonderful tournament here. And if Colombia can manage that, we could see them going deep into the competition for the first time since their 2001 on home soil.

Lucas Barrios (Paraguay) Argentina-born, but part of the Paraguayan diaspora, Barrios last year made the call to turn out for the country of his parents’ birth. Don’t let the fact that he might have struggled to get game time for Argentina fool you (this is a team that were, up until the last minute, looking to omit Carlos Tévez entirely from their Copa squad). He’s had a fine season at Borussia Dortmund where he helped the club to the Bundesliga title, and has all the attributes you could ask for in a centre-forward; powerful, fast, direct and mobile, he also benefits from great technique and knows where the goal is. With Roque Santa Cruz out of sorts, and Oscar Cardozo not even in the squad given his inability to bring his Benfica form to the national side, Barrios is the man Paraguay will be looking to to fire them into the latter stages of the Copa.

Alexis Sánchez (Chile) The figures being bandied around for Alexis Sánchez may appear bewildering to some, but not to those who’ve tracked his career or seen his displays last season in Italy; and not to all those huge clubs who’ve come to recognise that the forward would make a fine addition even to the very best of teams. Udinese boss Guidolin’s decision to move him from the wing into that central trequartista area behind the main strikes has reaped dividends; Sánchez responded with his best season to date, capped by a string of superb individual display, firing his side to an unlikely Champions League qualifier berth. Udinese will hope to retain his services to aid their European campaign next term, but with the player looking for a fresh challenge a move seems nigh-on certain. Whoever wants to snatch away this special talent will have to break the bank though. With Chile looking a good bet to make the semis in Argentina, it’s all set up nicely for the attacker to have a stellar tournament to match the stellar fee he’ll command.

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22 June 2011

Copa América Memories: 1999 – EL LOCO’S DARKEST HOUR

Some call him ‘El Loco’; other prefers ‘El Titán’. Born in La Plata in 1973, he started his pro career banging goals in for his local club- Estudiantes- and he’s barely let up ever since. In a career that’s taken him to Spain via the Federal Capital- and back again- he signed off at home for the club which he became synonymous, Boca Juniors, last Sunday in a 1-1 draw against Belgrano at the Bombonera. 297 all-in-all goals in 609 professional club appearances tells us something as to why he held in such reverence; eight Primera División titles, two Copa Libertadores, and one Intercontinental Cup tells us more.

He never quite cut it in Europe; to be fair, Palermo in many ways does not resemble the prototype of an Argentine forward. Moreover, injuries robbed him of speed. Tall and gangly, he certainly doesn’t stride like a footballer. His first touch remains uncultured. If no-one can deny that there is one thing that defines him, it is his goals; and underpinning that are his two other great qualities- presence; and huevos. Balls.

There were no goals for the blonde-haired centre forward on the day he achieved international notoriety, July 4 1999. The stage was Copa América group C, the opponent Colombia, and the setting Asunción, Paraguay. It is a game that still defies logic. Five penalty kicks were awarded that day, including the one that led to Ivan Córdoba’s opener for the Colombians ten minutes in. Javier Zanetti, of all people, was shown a straight red 21 minutes from the end for a reckless barge; so, too, was his manager Marcelo Bielsa.

That erratic genius of a coach added to the surreality of the night in his post-mast reaction. When asked what he thought of the referee he, characteristically, stared blankly into space for what seemed an eternity before replying. “Well, I usually don’t like to comment on referees, but…”. But. And it’s true, he doesn’t. But, here we went, surely?

But no. “Well. Regarding my expulsion all I will say is that Señor Aquino was absolutely correct because I protested in an such an ill-mannered form”. Crikey.

But no, this match will be remembered for none of that. Not a whit.

Palermo had already opened his account for tournament in the first game versus Ecuador, netting his first and second goals for the albiceleste. WhenArgentina were awarded a penalty with the scoring level in their second game, he was the natural candidate to step forward to take the kick. His presence, more than anything, had forced the Colombian centre-half into this foolish concession by handball. His every move screamed confidence.

Staring down the opposing goalkeeper, Miguel Calero, he smacked a ferocious shot down the centre. With Calero committed, the ball accelerated with such force that you feared for the netting. Instead, the ball hit the crossbar flush before arcing over the end line for a goal-kick. ‘Palo!’ the commentator, Marcelo Araujo screamed. The Colombians had been let off the hook. Within three minutes, the rattled Argentines had presented their unfancied opponents with a gift they were in no mood to pass up. Córdoba, this time, made no mistake from 12 yards.

Yet,Argentina were still the better side and it simply looked a case of when- not if- they would strike back. Watching the re-run on Fox Sport Clásico, they appear superior to their opponents in every aspect. After the tragic failure of USA 1994, Colombia were going through a generational change but were a country without a track record of possessing those key attributes of peerless talent, belief and continuity that mark the continents two super-powers’ ability to manage such transition.

More wedded than ever to the slow short-passing game 0f their  erstwhile trainer, Francisco Maturana, they no longer had those deadly technicians or that devastating turn of attacking acceleration which had seen them eviscerate their opponents 5-0 on their own turf six years hence, forcing the Argentines into a humiliating play-off against Australia and an ill-starred recall for a physically ruined Diego Maradona to make the World Cup in the US. Here, Argentina were bigger, more coherent, feistier, and asked serious questions of this dubious Colombian defence.

After the break, it was more of the same. The only thing missing was end-product. If only, you felt, they could pick out Palermo in the right position the Colombians were there for the taking. Yet from one incisive centre-field switch, Zanetti coughed up a cross on the right that looked to be sailing harmlessly away from danger until the referee blew his whistle for a push so devilishly subtle fromArgentina’s central defender, Astrada, that nobody but the official noticed it. Bielsa slumped to the turf and flailed his arms as his defenders protested.

The replay showed that Hamilton Ricard, the man supposedly fouled, had barely been within three feet of his purported assailant at the time. This one was going from weird to weirder, and worse was to come. Ricard, with the look of a man with the church chalice protruding from his satchel, dispatched a poor strike which Roberto Abbondanzieri palmed to his right before clutching unopposed at the second attempt. Justice had been served.

As the game became more open and loose, the rangy young enganche Juan Román Riquelme wrestled control in the centre as Colombia dropped back, his clever through-balls to the predatory Palermo coming closer each time to yielding a leveler. Somehow, dogged resistance, dumb luck, and indecisiveness meant we entered the final quarter mark with Colombia still ahead.

The commentators, Araujo and his sidekick, noted the sheer distraction factor of Palermo, how the entire defence seemed fixated upon his physical presence; and how just- if only- a midfield runner could intelligently use his decoy presence then the entire Colombian strategy of sitting on their 12 yard line could come unstuck.Argentinahas stuck to their philosophy and were doing everything right. Bar the odd Colombian pot-shot, it was all one-way traffic and Riquelme was in magisterial form. Eventually, a mistake would come, and eventually the right opportunity would present itself.

And finally it came. Under sustained pressure, Colombia allowed Kily González and Riquelme to exchange passes out on the left before the enganche swung a deftly flighted ball towards Palermo at the back post. The only way to to stop him was to impede him; the decision was an easy one. “Penalti!” Bielsa, who moments before had had the countenance of a man being told his sister had been abducted by a band of Ratko Mládic’s irregulars erupted, jumping, bellowing and eyes bulging. “It’s ON!”

While the Colombians crowded the the referee on the penalty spot, Martin Palermo looked the coolest customer in town as he placed the ball on the mark, oblivious to their half-hearted protestations. The melee cleared, and just as before but from the opposite end he began his run-up from twelve yards, utterly unfazed.

Fixing his socks in place, he set in motion. “Vamooooo Martín, vamooo Martín!” implored Araujo. Same boot, same situation. This time the ball flew into the stands without ever coming close to the touching the bar. Unbelievable! “Por dios…. Por favor…. cómo puede ser?” For the love of god, how can it be so?  intoned the comentarista as Palermo yanked up his nicks like a nappy, that cold exterior finally succumbing to anguish.

The players were losing the plot, just as Bielsa now was losing his. And the referee? He’d never had much of one to begin with. Bielsa was led away from the pitch by a pair of heavies with regulation 1970′s beige military dictator suits and glasses. And yet still, it was a one goal game. Not for long though. A corner on the right saw Palermo lose his man at the wrong end of the field, allowing Edwin Congo to ghost home a sublime finish from the centre that all but sealed the group for his side.

It was some minutes before play resumed. The Colombians, understandably, were every bit as ecstatic as the Porteños were shell-shocked. But the drama wasn’t finished. Bielsa teams know only one way to play, and that is to attack. It is what makes his sides so invigorating to watch, regardless of the outcome. Just as his Chile side did against Spain against all the odds in South Africa last summer, now the selección continued to go toe-to-toe a man short.

They were making good headway through the centre when that clown of an árbitro, Ubaldo Aquino- deciding to do what their opponents had given up on trying- broke up a fine passing move as Diego Simeone sought to feed the ball centrally. Their tails up, the Colombians took maximum advantage as Freddy Rincón fed the 16 year-old wonderkid Jhonnier Montaño who sliced through the off-guard albiceleste defence to plant a golazo worthy of winning any game having spotted Abbondanzieri fractionally off his line from some 30 yards out. 3-0. 3-0! Mad, bad, and insane in every membrane possible. This had been one hell of a game. But yet… but yet.

The crowd oléd every successful Colombia pass. Now the timid had turned tormenter, taunting their opponents as the Scots once did at Wembley safe in the knowledge that whatever happened, they would not suffer the hubristic comeuppance Cruyff’s Holland did when their cockiness kicked in too early in the 1974 World Cup Final. Ping-ping-ping. Now it was Argentina who were chasing shadows and looking a shambles. But there remained one defiant man with unfeasible testicular fortitude who was not willing to take this humiliation sat on his arse; even as yet another colleague ended up on his in the middle of yet another mocking Colombian rombo. Who else could it have been?

Pressing like a man possessed, fighting against a lost cause that would have left Saint Anthony himself aghast, Martín Palermo picked the pocket of melina (that wonderfully Italian protoype of tiki-taka where the defence circulate the ball against an already beaten opponent) to surge into the area.

Surge? Maybe that’s too powerful a word. He was spent. Upon being crowded out by two recovering defenders he simply collapsed to the ground, dead from his efforts. But it was by no means the most preposterous of fouls given by Aquino on the night, and in truth, who would have begrudged Argentina some consolation on a night of such utter insanity? Even the defence barely bothered to protest. But what was this?

Palermo was already on his feet, if not exactly marching, then at least purposefully making his way towards the mark. If any team-mate was so foolish as to insist on stopping this beast from having his shot at at partial redemption, they certainly lacked the pelotas to do so; certainly lacked the pelotas of Palermo himself.

That icy stare appeared again, but this time tinged with a hint of desperation. The Bull from La Plata was panting. It was the fifth penalty of the night. It had been emotional… and then some. But, after all that had transpired before, there was not a hope he would cede duties to any of his shattered team-mates.

Most coaches tell you you must know how to shoot with both feet, but then Martín Palermo has never been one who conforms to what most coaches demand. His run up lacked the pace of his previous two. Surely this was fatigue, so evident, but it also lacked the earlier certainty. He didn’t seek power and height this time. Instead, an equally jaded Calero was grateful to save his left-footed shot in that area keepers always most favour- just off centre to the opposite side off their opponent’s preferred foot. Colombia celebrated again.

Palermo trudged off, bowed but not beaten. Within hours, even CNN in the United States was treating its viewers to this most cruel of tragicomedies. It was the talk of schoolyards from Ireland to Iran, and Japan to Cape Town. For those of us outside of outside of South America, at the dawn of the internet age, it was our introduction to the man.

But even at this moment of failure, it encapsulates what all Argentines love about this guy. Even the River fans, even those who scorned his selections during Diego Maradona’s crazed reign. Here was a man with balls the size of Mexico. A man whose sheer bloody-mindedness and refusal to admit defeat we could all aspire to.
His subsequent career saw highs and lows. In the short-term, his standing in the eyes of European scouts barely diminished. His stellar performance against Real to claim the Intercontinental Cup Final in 2000 proved he still had the power, pace, and finishing ability to make it in Europe.

After some initial success following a move to a Villarreal side looking to cement their newly-found status in Spain’s top flight, he suffered some unfortunate injuries and was never quite the same beast. Following those, his technical shortcomings were exposed at the highest level in Europe. Uncowed, he returned home to become the greatest goalscorer in Boca’s modern history.

When he finally reappeared on the world stage to rescue Argentina’s 2010 World Cup qualification, even that was questioned in some corners by the highest journalistic authorities. He did just that, at the moment Argentina stared elimination from South Africa 2010 in the face even before the flights had been booked.

But no one well ever question the man, his goals, his balls. Or is heart. How fitting that on his fleeting recall he managed to net against Greece in South Africa, becoming the oldest Argentine after the great El Diego himself to hit the mark in a World Cup to do so. Not through ephedrine. Not through natural gifts. But by taking what limited gifts he possessed and making more of them than a lesser man could ever have dreamed of.

Joseph is a freelance Spanish correspondent for Back Page Football and Scotzine. You can follow him on Twitter @josephsbcn

This article originally appeared in The Oval Log