Argentina mired in transition
Interim Argentine coach Batista seemingly has Lionel Messi's endorsement
The players have finally broken their media silence about the failed World Cup
It's rumored that the previous coaching staff behaved poorly in South Africa
Rebuilding the sense of team after the painful World Cup exit, and following on from the discharge of Diego Maradona, was never going to be easy for Argentina. Only a handful of Argentinian press travelled to Dublin, to cover the 1-0 friendly win against Ireland on Tuesday, which marked the international soccer launch of the new Aviva stadium, as well as that of Sergio "Checho" Batista's interim appointment to the adult men's squad.
Batista has been in charge of Argentina's international youth sides since 2008, and although he started with a high note winning Olympic gold that same year, he failed to qualify for the U-20 World Cup. Elimination came in the midst of such intense events in Argentinian football (the state's involvement in the termination of the TV broadcast contracts; Maradona's expletive ridden press conference) that not much was made of it at the time. But for Argentina's long tradition of excellence in youth development, it is a result which ought not to be disregarded.
Yet Batista and his staff have a powerful advantage over others vying for the job on a permanent basis: Lionel Messi plays comfortably in their system. Currently, this is the key for Argentina. Whether or not Messi is aware of his power, he has it. His remarks in the mixed zone after the game [Question: "Did you feel more like you do at Barcelona?" Messi: "yes"] have already been decodified by Argentine media back home into a full blown statement of support for Batista's continuation.
In the grand setting of the Carton House hotel, surrounded by golf greens and ancient trees, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) hoped to kick off a new era. A silence had been drawn after the World Cup, none of the players who went to South Africa had spoken, and this week, one by one, some started to express their views. Javier Mascherano, close to midnight on the Monday night, called an improptu press conference in which he said Argentina has to move on, and expressed support for the acting manager. Many things ought to be kept prvate, he said, and dealt with behind closed doors. He followed on from Gabriel "El Gringo" Heinze, who barely an hour before had addressed the handful of pressmen present to say he had met with AFA president Julio Grondona privately and let him know his feelings about some internal shuffles at the heart of the "restructuring" within the institution.
In a nutshell, Grondona, a man who has enjoyed a lot of power in world soccer for 30 years, was displeased with the behavior of some of the staff at the World Cup. The rumors -- legally unrepeatable at best, particularly if untrue -- involve among others Alejandro Mancuso and Daniel Pellegrino. The latter has been Mr Grondona's right-hand man for decades, and the personal closeness between the two makes Pellegrino's exit all the more surprising. Many of the players have a true sense of loyalty to the man who has "contained, helped, and stood by" them for decades.
"It's the same as a marriage," Grondona told me when asked about Pellegrino. "You know, the kind of thing that often happens in a marriage happened." I didn't ask if Pellegrino slept with the nanny, but understood the hurt that comes from a sense of betrayal and the unpatchable nature of the wound left behind when trust has been broken. Pellegrino is still employed by the AFA but his future function is "yet to be determined."
Mancuso, who stood by Maradona's side since the very beginning of the latter's appointment, is no longer on the AFA's payroll. Nor indeed are any of the technical staff that came with Maradona. It has been widely reported that Grondona's request that Mancuso depart lies at the heart of Maradona's own departure.
Grondona is not as young as he once was, but he still has the knack of exercising power. He is the boss, and unpopular as the measure may be in some quarters, he announced the termination of Maradona's contract and the "interim" appointment of Batista to be in charge at least for all international friendly fixtures until the end of this year. He has also spoken of a Commission to establish the next permanent manager; it is understood Batista is a strong contender but by no means the only one. There may be a call for the presentation of "projects" -- this is the way in which Jose Pekerman was appointed to look after youth development in 1998.
Friendlies are the only fixtures on the calendar for now, and even in this area Argentina's soccer family have gone through some changes. In 2006 Guillermo Tofoni, of World Eleven, struck a deal with the Russian company Renova to finance international friendlies until december 2011. But Argentina's friendly against Russia in Moscow last August marked the end of the relationship with Renova. "We ended the contract very amicably," says Tofoni. "They did extraordinarily well out of the time our deal lasted, recouping their investment and making a profit on top, but I wanted to buy back the remaining fixtures because I felt capable of exploiting them commercially without them."
Tofoni has been staging friendlies his whole life, and he remarks that whereas he once brokered a deal which left Argentina with U$S 95,000 for a game against Honduras, the AFA is going home a cool million dollars richer, give or take, from the filled close to capacity Aviva clash. On top of the fee for partaking, Tofoni and AFA's commercial partners Santa Monica also derived income from 22 minutes of pitch-side advertising during the match. Friendlies are money-spinners, after all.
Maradona's first game in charge of Argentina was a friendly in Glasgow which Lionel Messi did not attend. At the time, Renova wanted to withhold 20 percent of the agreed fee because of the superstars absence. Maradona's presence did not for them represent an increase in either box office or TV revenue "because the contracts had already been drawn out." Does Maradona's absence, now, have the opposite effect? After all, there is no blanket deal with one marketeer but rather every game must be brokered individually. "Not really" says Tofoni, "If anything, Maradona cost us money. Increased security and catering for the overdimensioned media interest -- Diego generated a lot of expectations, but not more revenue".
The media absence is conspicuous enough. At the postmatch press conference Batista was visibly disappointed to see only one reporter from Argentina present. He then spent the whole night talking to another one of the three newspaper men who had travelled to Ireland. Grondona describes this time as an "oasis of tranquility" but it is clear that for Batista at least a little more air space would not go amiss.
A couple of European-based stringers, cameras in tow, enabled the country to keep tuned into the ongoing soap opera, however. Carlos Tevez arrived late on Tuesday night and no sooner had he stepped out of the car, before even entering the hotel, he splurred out a tirade of accusations: broken promises, lack of loyalty, and disastrous leadership were among the sins he accused the AFA of. Two minutes later Mancuso was on air in a TV studio back home. By the early hours of Thursday morning, however, Tevez had gone to Grondona's room to "clarify" what he meant.
"I'm old enough to be able to take the mood swings of this young lad," said Grondona in diminishing the incident which had dominated the headlines a day earlier. Meanwhile, back home, midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron broke his silence in an hour-long interview with sport radio station La Red, criticizing Maradona for his choice of tactics at the World Cp. Stepping off the plane back home, general manager Carlos Bilardo also addressed the press, suggesting if Batista wins the next fixtures his chances are good. In fact, after the silence since July 3, in the past 72 hours Bilardo, Batista, Mancuso, Mascherano, Heinze, Veron, Tevez and Grondona have all spoken out.
And, let us not forget, so did Messi, in his own way. Standing furtively behind the cattle rails which separate the players from the press at the Aviva stadium mixed zone he made perhaps the most significant statement of them all. When asked by reporters "Do you feel you played the way Guardiola lets you play?" -- Messi's answer was a simple "Yes."
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