And so the sun set on Argentina’s 2017 Under 20 World Cup adventure. Not on Friday when the final whistle blew for an ultimately fruitless thrashing of Guinea’s age group equivalent, but when results from third parties failed to materialise the following Sunday.
When looking back on such a situation it’s perhaps somewhat understandable that failure in Korea will be defamed as a far cry from a 12 year period (1995 to 2007) when “Los Pibes” brought home 5 of the 7 World Cup honours on offer. Although in actual fact it’s in truth primarily a damning reflection of a footballing pandemic that has been spreading throughout the country for some time.
What Happened in Korea, stays in Korea
Truth be told, taken in isolation Claudio Úbeda’s side could perhaps feel rather unfortunate to be exiting the Under 20 World Cup at such an early stage. Their football whilst excessively profligate at times, was far from poor. With key individual errors in the first two fixtures (and thereafter some rather dubiously absent sportsmanship elsewhere) leading to an ensuing heavy price to pay.
However, in reality the tournament marks the second consecutive youth showcase where La Albiceleste have failed to advance from the group stage. So despite some recent false dawns such as the South American Championships victory in 2015, it has been clear now for some time that there are some major issues at the youth developmental level in Argentina.
Unfortunately the tendency amongst media and fans alike has already been to make sweeping statements in the face of recent setbacks. Exaggeration and hyperbole being the order of the day (and part of the crux of the issue), with very little analysis behind throw away statements around lack of investment, and/or the limited quality of the current generation of players.
Whilst there may be a lot of truth to the bulk of the critique, it sadly sails past some of the other contingent interconnected issues that are rooted inside the now (in)famous AFA circus of recent years.
Too Much Too young Argentine style
Whereas the problem in some of the major European leagues is a ‘Too much too young’ culture with teenage players being paid obscene amounts of money before even making their first team debut. The quagmire that Argentina’s financial situation has engendered is one that the youngsters are being given their professional bow at increasingly precocious ages, and more often than not without the time taken to develop them properly before doing so.
Former World Cup winning Argentina coach César Luis Menotti, rather pointedly addressed this predicament on one of he’s more infrequent television appearances not long ago.
Menotti, when describing the difference between good, great and even the magical players, denoted the influence of both the coaching and environment at youth level can still have on this: “When comparing Leo Messi and Cristiano, do you think Messi’s career would have been the same if he’d made his debut at Real Madrid, for example?” Menotti asked the shows hosts in attendance.
His point was that Ronaldo throughout his career has always been asked to be “the hero”, and therefore plays like this. Whereas Messi’s evolution was more nurtured at the Camp Nou. His time in the team was brought on progressively, and under the tutelage of other great players such as Ronaldinho, Xavi or Iniesta, who helped share the responsibilities.
Whilst the comparison may seem a tad strange in terms of both Ballon D’or winners undoubtedly having earned themselves phenomenal careers by maximising their unquestionable talent. Menotti’s analogy as to the patience around their development paints a rather visceral picture, in terms of how different talent can turn out when cultivated somewhat antithetically.
Consequently and when analysing the current status quo in Argentina, it would be impossible to conclude anything other than that from the age of 15 (or younger!) a player is more often than not already asked to be the hero. There is no time to develop. And if you loose like Úbeda’s kids have, or Humbertito Grondona’s did before him, as Marcelo Bielsa once so effectively put it: “You don’t exist”.
Throw into the equation that even those who are fortunate enough to win early and showcase their talent, will as a result more than likely be swept away by a more wealthy European side, who may or may not have the players best interests at heart, Then you have yourself a double barrelled assault on the players advancement.
(Equally if you add in that in many situations that these barely teenagers, are often exported with a hyperbolic media tag of “the new Messi, Agüero” etc. in tow. Then the double edged sword is probably as likely to cut from either side!)
It would be a fair riposte of these issues for one to say that Argentina’s problems are hardly unique at a South American level. Moreover it would indeed be true also. Albeit the biggest differential would possibly lay that whereas the likes of Chile in the not too distant past, and currently both Uruguay and Venezuela in particular, have invested not solely finance, but time and patience in their projects. The power vacuum at the AFA has meant that this has long since been not the case.
With the question mark of over how much sway new president Claudio “Chiqui” Tapia will be able to exert over the more powerful domestic clubs in Argentina: Ezequiel Barco’s omission from the tournament and last summers Olympics still fresh in the memory, continuing to very much hang above the AFA, like a youth development sword of Damocles. Tapia’s appointment does at least invite some optimism about a new era being feasibly possible.
Concurrently the arrival of Juan Sebastián Verón, who’s track record in charge of Estudiantes at least augers favourably. Not to mention reportedly that of Jorge Burruchaga as well. Both going into positions that are theoretically designed to bolster the nations youth development structure, are also as good a starting point as there has been for some time.
Short term wise, the early departure from the Republic of Korea, and imminent appointment of Jorge Sampaoli will inevitably lead to questions around Claudio Úbeda’s position. Despite being a relative newcomer to the role, Tapia, Verón, “Don Sampa” and Co. may well feel that replacing the current incumbent with one of Sampaoli’s trusted lieutenants from his back room staff could help create a clearer pathway for the younger generations.
If this was to be the case then the early front runner would be the excellent current Defensa y Justicia boss Sebastián Beccacece, with Pablito Aimar’s involvement being a distinct possibility too.
As for the players? Well for now they don’t exist. But that may not necessarily be a bad thing for the likes of Santiago Ascacibar, Lautaro Martínez, Juan Foyth or the tournament’s revelation Santiago Colombatto in particular (but not exclusively of course). As it will hopefully give them time to grow with more patience outside of the spotlight.
And if nothing else their most recent predecessors have done a good enough job of proving the at best whimsical correlation between success at youth level translating in to the same at the top!