Scrambling for spots

With Tuesday’s dead rubber draw between Peru and Bolivia, the South American qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup came to a close. Compared to that of other continental confederations around the globe, the current qualifying system used by Conmebol is the most entertaining, the most competitive and it serves as the best preparation for major tournaments.

All ten of Conmebol’s member nations (nine this time around, with Brazil qualified as World Cup hosts) compete in one group, and the guaranteed fixture list of home and away games provides a stern test for the better nations and a superb chance for development for the weaker nations. For proof, one needs look no further than Ecuador and Venezuela, once the continent’s whipping-boys. Ecuador has now qualified for its third World Cup since 2002 and although Venezuela narrowly missed out on qualification, their steady progress makes them strong candidates to make the 2018 finals.

In the absence of Brazil, Argentina unsurprisingly topped the group. Seeing as they will be the “home” team in most of the southern venues at next year’s tournament, and considering their wealth of attacking talent (including Lionel Messi, someone you may have heard of), Argentina must be considered among the favourites to win in Brazil.

Colombia finished in second place and qualify for their first World Cup finals since France 98. Much has been made of this Colombia side (with good reason when you consider their front three of James Rodríguez, Teo Gutiérrez and Radamel Falcao), but comparisons with the golden generation of the early 90s are unfair and invalid. Not only did that team have more quality in more areas of the field, they also had to deal with inhumane external pressure that culminated in the tragic murder of el Caballero del Fútbol Andrés Escobar after their elimination from the 1994 World Cup.

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Speaking exclusively about matters on the pitch, the current Colombia team is undoubtedly talented, but also dangerously imbalanced – a trade-off for having the superb Radamel Falcao in attack. While Falcao is probably the world’s best penalty box finisher, he is often only as good as the service he receives. When Colombia’s Argentinian coach José Pékerman started to fill his side with attacking options to feed Falcao, they started winning. However, this onus on attack leaves them vulnerable in defence, even more so with their creaking centre-back corps.

The 3-3 draw against Chile in Barranquilla was a microcosm of this current side. Pékerman started the match with three central defenders in an attempt to contain Chile’s attacking threats, but he still selected James Rodríguez and Teo to support Falcao. The result was a completely disjointed team, isolated forwards and a back line that Chile’s forwards repeatedly outpaced, racking up a 3-0 lead by half-time.

With the Barranquilla crowd spurring them on, Colombia came out fighting for the second half and overloaded Chile, playing a physical, high-intensity style. Amazingly, they drew the match 3-3.

Chile, who qualified in third place, suffer from many of the same problems. Under Jorge Sampaoli they play the most attractive attacking football on the continent, but are frequently undone in defence.

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Sampaoli rose to prominence as the coach of Universidad de Chile, who entertained the continent in 2011 and -12 with their relentless attacking and haphazard defending. Sampaoli – a cross between Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola and a furious chimpanzee – has translated that system word for word to the national team, and they are sure to be the neutral’s favourite next year.

Looking at World Cup 2014 odds, Chile could be a good outside bet for reaching the semi-finals.

Perhaps unfairly regarded as a surprise entrant, Ecuador sealed the fourth and final automatic qualifying spot. Their Colombian coach Reginaldo Rueda has built a solid unit capable of causing problems to any team, spearheaded by excellent wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero.

With the tragic death of Cristián “Chucho” Benítez earlier in the year, Ecuador had to overcome a particularly tough hurdle in order to qualify. Besides being a close friend to many of the squad and an irreplaceable dressing room presence, Chucho was also crucial to Ecuador’s style on the pitch.

Playing as a second striker behind Felipe Caicedo, Chucho would work the channels and frustrate defences, often creating chances out of nothing. Ecuador have no-one else in that mould, and while they struggled to adept emotionally and technically, they very nearly lost their place in the top four.

Current Copa América holders Uruguay finished in fifth place and will play off against Jordan for a spot in Brazil. Despite a disappointing campaign, I fully expect them to qualify, but I will talk more about them another day.

With teams around the world scrambling for places in the group stage draw, hosts Brazil and their coach Luiz Felipe Scolari are putting the finishing touches to their preparation. The Seleção played two friendlies during this international break, two 2-0 wins over South Korea and Zambia in the Far East.

It is clear that the side that won the Confederations Cup in July will form the base of their team at the World Cup, with several fringe players fighting for the final spots in the 23-man squad. These friendlies have more or less confirmed the presence of Jefferson and Diego Cavalieri as back-up goalkeepers, Dante and Dedé as the reserve centre-backs and Maxwell as Marcelo’s understudy at left-back.

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Liverpool’s defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva made an excellent return to the national side, and he may be in with a chance of a starting berth ahead of Luiz Gustavo. It doesn’t look like good news for Lucas Moura or Alexandre Pato though, as both were disappointing, slated by Brazilian journalists and will probably miss the final cut.

By my reckoning, there are only two available spots in Brazil’s World Cup squad: a centre-forward (most likely Fred on his return from injury, possibly Diego Costa) and a reserve attacking midfielder. If I were Felipão, I would be looking at either Liverpool’s Phillipe Coutinho or Atlético-MG’s Diego Tardelli.

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Like a lepra messiah…

Writing in The Guardian’s Sport Blog recently, Jonathan Wilson explored the influence Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa (and his methods) has had on the modern game. Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid and editor of quarterly football magazine The Blizzard, suggests that in recent years football ‘has gone through a process of Bielsafication’.

While Bielsa confronts training ground site managers in the Basque Country, back in his hometown of Rosario one of his former players is spearheading a bielsaissance in the stadium bearing El Loco’s name. The club is Argentine primera side Newell’s Old Boys, and the former player is Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino.

Martino, who turned 50 last Tuesday, returned to La Lepra this year for the first time since leaving in 1996. Since then he has made a successful transition from playing to management, and encountered great success in Paraguay, winning several league titles with Libertad and Cerro Porteño before taking over the national side in 2007.

Following the dismissal of head coach Diego Cagna, it was rumoured Newell’s were trying to bring back Marcelo Bielsa as his replacement. Of course, this never came to pass, but in Tata Martino they certainly got the next best thing. Continue reading Like a lepra messiah…

Arsenal de Sarandí 1×1 Newell’s Old Boys: NOB go joint-top with hard-earned away draw

Arsenal de Sarandí and Newell’s Old Boys contested an intriguing 1×1 draw in Buenos Aires on Monday evening, a result that could hold real significance in the 2012 Clausura title-race.

The Argentine ‘short seasons’ system is often criticised and even ridiculed in other parts of the world, but it does have its virtues. For those not completely privy to how things work in Argieball, the league season is split into two half-length seasons known as the Apertura and Clausura (open and close). In some other South American countries that use the short season format, the winners of each short season face one another to determine an overall champion, but in Argentina two champions are crowned per season.

The 19-game season allows for some ‘smaller’ teams to become champion, for example in the 2009-10 season where Banfield and Argentinos Juniors won the Apertura and Clausura respectively. This season, there is the chance of a similar ‘upset’ taking place. Continue reading Arsenal de Sarandí 1×1 Newell’s Old Boys: NOB go joint-top with hard-earned away draw

Game of the Week: Arsenal de Sarandí 1×2 Boca Juniors

Another Copa Libertadores tie for Game of the Week and from last week’s all-Brazilian clash between Santos and Internacional, we go to an all-Argentine affair as Arsenal de Sarandí hosted giants Boca Juniors in El Viaducto.

Boca, the undisputed champions of the 2011 Apertura, came into the match on the back of two consecutive defeats (the last time that happened was in March 2011) and it appeared that cracks were beginning to appear in Julio César Falcioni’s previously watertight Boca team. Continue reading Game of the Week: Arsenal de Sarandí 1×2 Boca Juniors

Responsibilities

Being in control of a football club comes with certain responsibilities. First and foremost, there is a responsibility to run the club honestly and within the law. Besides that, there is also a responsibility to take decisions with the club’s best interests at heart.

The ‘new European model’ of club ownership has never sat particularly well with me, with control going to the highest bidder, people with absolutely no connection or passion for a club are capable of taking full control of it. It turns football into pure business. Furthermore, the abhorrence of a wealthy entrepreneur using a football club as a bank for his/her own personal debt goes against everything I believe football should be.

While these owners are almost always portrayed as successful, savvy businessmen, in my opinion the most intelligent business decision would have been to swerve club ownership in the first place. There is precious little money to be made by owning a football club.

Back in my native Scotland, the recent situation with Rangers Football Club is a textbook example of a traditional club being (knowingly) run into the ground by the ridiculous overspending under the watch of previous owner and chairman Sir David Murray. A blatant lack of owner’s responsibility.

The South American model, where football clubs are social clubs and not businesses, is certainly more appealing on an ideological level, but in practice it is perhaps even more of a mess than the European style. For example in Peru, the league is currently in the midst of a momentous player’s strike, after hundreds of players throughout the top flight have gone without wages for several months thanks to the clubs’ maddening financial situations and haphazard administration. As a result of this chaos, the 2012 Peruvian league season kicked off last week with sides only able to field youth teams.

In Argentina, the politics surrounding the election of club presidents and officials has given rise to a new breed of football thuggery, the ‘professional hooligan’. Every big club in Argentina has their own organised group of thugs, known as a barra brava, who are essentially employed by the club in exchange for political backing. The barras are involved in all kinds of illegal behaviour, from ticket touting to drug dealing at stadiums, and they are a true poison in Argentine football.

Here in Brazil there is a different problem, as fan-elected administration has given rise to a painfully counter-productive culture of short-termism. When a manager is brought in to coach a Brazilian club, he is expected to bring success immediately, and if he fails to do so, he will most likely be out on his behind faster than you can say Copacabana.

Last week, southern side Grêmio sacked their manager Caio Júnior after a paltry eight weeks in charge of the club. During his brief reign, Grêmio only played eight competitive matches; all of them in the largely inconsequential opening stage of the Rio Grande do Sul state championship. Out of those eight matches, Grêmio won four, drew one, and lost three times. Strangely enough, that record was enough for Grêmio to qualify – fairly comfortably – for the knockout phase of the tournament.

Whether I believe that Caio Júnior was the right man or not for Grêmio job is not ad rem, the fact is that this was another in a long line of ridiculous dismissals. Anyone with half a brain can see that eight weeks is clearly not enough time for a coach to leave his mark on a team.

Grêmio are one of the worst offenders in this surge of short-termism, since 2003 they have changed manager 16 times (not including caretaker managers or the pending arrival of Vanderlei Luxemburgo).

This problem has ramifications that run far deeper than Brazilian domestic football however, as it has significantly stunted the development of Brazil’s home-grown coaches. Afraid that one bad result will cost them their job, Brazilian managers often revert to safer, more defensive tactics. In addition, managers are employed for such short time periods that they often do no more than motivate the players in the dressing room and pick a starting eleven. They end up playing the role of cheerleader instead of head coach.

With this in mind, is there really any wonder why there are no Brazilian coaches managing at top-level clubs? Or that in the Copa Libertadores, Brazilian sides are often eliminated by continental sides who play much more expansive and attacking football? If Brazil ever wants to be the world’s greatest footballing nation once more, people at all levels of the game need to start taking responsibility.

Manure-handlers, projectiles and Hamilton Ricard: South America update

For the past few months, you would be forgiven for thinking that ILFM solely focused on football here in Brazil and nowhere else. However, the fact is that I aim to write about all types of South American football, Argentine, Uruguayan, Venezuelan… You name it, I have a passion for it.

The remarkably exciting 2011 Campeonato Brasileiro season certainly took centre stage here on this blog, but now that it has been concluded, allow me to bring you up to date with everything else that’s going on in this beautiful continent. Continue reading Manure-handlers, projectiles and Hamilton Ricard: South America update

World Cup 2014: The Road to Rio begins

With just over 1,000 days until the Final in the Maracanã, CONMEBOL’s nine nations (excluding Brazil) begin their march towards the World Cup with the first round of qualifying matches taking place this week. With every side in action on Friday and again on Tuesday (even Brazil have friendly matches on those days) we have plenty of thrilling football to look forward to. Let’s take a look at Friday’s four qualifiers, and cast a quick glance over the 2014 hosts and their friendly in Costa Rica.

Continue reading World Cup 2014: The Road to Rio begins