“The way we work with the youth sides in Argentina, not only with the national team but at all clubs, must be changed. You have to think about other things and not just results.Now, players don’t have to play for the national team to move to Europe. Today, with three or four games, he is already worth $10 million. Great for clubs, but bad for the kids. Sometimes we prepare them to go abroad rather than play in Argentina.”
If someone had said this in recent years it might make sense yet those were the words of Sergio Batista only months after coaching Argentina’s golden generation to Olympic gold in 2008.
The outrageously gifted Juan Román Riquelme, the team’s only real veteran, wore the captain’s armband while the rest of the squad was littered with under-20 World Cup champions. La Albiceleste had emerged as the dominant force in youth football, lifting the title five times between 1995 and 2007, with Riquelme just one of those to graduate to stardom.
Ángel Di María scored the only goal against Nigeria in Beijing and with it the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Éver Banega and Pablo Zabaleta picked up what many suspected would be the first of many international honours.
Whether it be through bad luck, misplaced trust in overhyped talent or poor management, it’s no secret that that hasn’t been the case, but what of the once glittering youth system?
From five under-20 World Cups in 12 years to two first round exits and two failures to even qualify over the next decade, Argentina had collapsed in dramatic fashion.
“It’s very hard to explain. It’s true that everything was going very well while [José] Pékerman was there. It’s incredible to think why it wasn’t continued in that way.”
That was the honest answer of the man now tasked with identifying the new way and hoping to oversee a fresh era of success for Argentina’s youth teams – Hermes Desio.
The former midfielder was appointed as youth team co-ordinator by the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) in July 2017 in an overhaul by the then recently-elected president Claudio Tapia, having worked in a similar role at Estudiantes de la Plata for several years.
With the support of former under-20 World Cup winners Pablo Aimar and Diego Placente, Desio has the task of overseeing the entire youth project. All three are now in Brazil with the under-17s hoping to capture a first World title at the age group,
“When we started this we chose the longest path which is to play with a set of values, with respect, solidarity, commitment and to stay grounded,” Desio explained when quizzed on his philosophy towards youth football on the eve of Argentina’s under-17 World Cup opener.
“To win? We all like to win but when it comes to certain age groups, we understand that the main thing is to learn to play and have fun. If we don’t achieve this then we have taught them very little.”
Aimar, now in charge of the under-17s, will of course be in Brazil to win but he too has spoken of the importance for young players to simply enjoy their football.
“The expectation for Argentina to win is always there even when statistics might say otherwise. The hope is something that is always remains,” Desio said.
“We’re in a very special moment with a group that’s been working for years and we know that the experience that we can take from this will only serve us well in the future. We are not going to put pressure on the boys for this, that is for sure. If they are good…they’ll know what to do.”
This group of under-17s were the first to taste success under the new regime as Diego Placente guided them to lift the under-15 South American Championships towards the end of 2017.
And it is this link between the age-groups with a core identity that serves to flow all the way through to the senior side that is so important when creating a conveyor belt of talent to feed the national team.
“We have succeeded in unifying the criteria that encompasses all the age-groups. The same thought, the same idea, the same path and the same values above all else with the ball at the axis of the whole.
“Argentina has great potential, a lot of raw materials and capacity from those in charge.
“We just had to sort out the operation a little and trust what we were doing. We had the help of the AFA, they allowed us to do what we intended and we believe that we’re now better off. But since football is a long game, we mustn’t stop to think that everything is ok, quite the opposite, we cannot stop, because football doesn’t wait for anyone.”
That continuity is certainly helped by the fact that current Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni was an under-20 teammate of Aimar and Placente. The close-knit relation is already bearing fruit – Placente’s under-15 South American champions, progressing with Aimar to continental success two years later and now at a World Cup before hopefully extending that success to under-20s and beyond.
“What I believe is that in Argentina there is a lack of continuity, sustaining a project without thinking about the results.
“I said before, the raw materials are there and so if you add good training methodology, scouting, values and so forth you shouldn’t end up getting lost. We can’t be going up and down, we should keep a balance.”
Easier said than done in Argentina.
“That’s what we are living here. To keep making changes in this day and age where everything should be lined up. We don’t know where we’re going so we change and we change again and it’s like this every time something doesn’t work.”
If there remains a clear similarity to what Batista outlined over a decade ago, the political and economic issues that seep into Argentina’s club football linger too. Cash-strapped clubs operating on hand to mouth budgets are regularly forced to sell cheaply and quickly to the highest bidder in order to balance the books.
“Clubs can’t sustain their players due to the economic issues, so more and more boys are leaving here at a younger age. They don’t get to have a ripening experience in our football and it’s a shame because we can’t enjoy them either. But as long as the economic difference exists, it will remain unsustainable for us.”
Desio, an industrious and intelligent midfielder, never got to play for the national team yet was used for sparring ahead of the 1990 World Cup and enjoyed over ten years in Spain with Celta de Vigo, Unión Deportiva Salamanca and Deportivo Alavés.
It was with the latter where Desio suffered the heartbreak of defeat to Liverpool in the UEFA Cup final in 2001. An extra time own-goal handing the Spanish club a 5-4 loss and cutting short their historic run at the final hurdle.
Despite what could at times be perceived as a gloomy outlook, Desio speaks with an enthusiasm and positivity about Argentina’s future and when casting his mind back on his own career is clearly thrilled to reminisce over one particular memory: A debut for Independiente as a 19-year-old in a clásico win over fierce rivals Racing Club, entering as a substitute for club icon Ricardo Bochini.
“As an Independiente supporter, I could have retired after that game,” Desio laughed, “It was incredible to come on for the biggest icon in the history of the club. Football has given me so much but maybe that is the one. It lives with me forever.
Experiencing that type of atmosphere and pressure before going on to play over 100 times for one of Argentina’s biggest clubs stood Desio in good stead for his eventual move to Europe. It is exactly this type of experience that so many youngster now lack.
“Ten first team matches and they are sold and yet they have arrive at their new club and meet the same demands as any other new player. Except these kids have no experience, they’ve only just made their debuts.”
For as long as Argentina lags behind economically there is nothing that can be done about that. Yet the structure put it in place by Desio and his staff within the national team should help – better identification of the talent, greater time spent with the coaches on the training ground, improved resources, and that unified outlook that promotes development as the players progress through the age-groups.
The under-17s are vying to lift for the World Cup for the first time in Argentina’s history and the under-20s, who won gold at the Pan-American games take part in a pre-Olympic tournament at the start of 2020 aiming for a place in Japan. Success in both would be vindication for the work done by Desio and the coaching team.
There is still some way to go on the long path that Desio set out on. The 49-year-old remains as positive as ever.
“I love this country, I am someone who thinks that we can still change even if it is difficult, we just have to get ourselves in order.”