It’s as it should be: the smart money’s on Spain. Vicente del Bosque’s boys are massively talented. They have the best goalkeeper in the world. And, no, it’s not Iker Casillas. (Can anyone tell me why he’s captain? It has got be a not-so repressed desire for Castilian supremacy, one the coach has to overcome.) The best keeper is Jose Manuel Reina, “Pepe” to Liverpool FC partisans and a shot stopper supreme even though he can be a little flap-happy. David de Gea’s time will come, but it is not yet. In Carles Puyol, Carlos Marchena and Sergio Ramos they have a group of defenders that can tackle with conviction, win the ball in the air, and distribute with alacrity.
The real talent is, of course, in midfield. The Barça duo of Xavi and Iniesta is superb, unmatched in world football. No one who watched them win their historic treble in the 2008-09 season can forget how they absolutely schooled Manchester United in the Champions League final. Touch, move, open up space, another deft touch, the ball always on the ground, directly to the feet of a team mate. Xabi Alonso will, one hopes, anchor the midfield. The Real Madrid man—oh how Liverpool miss him—has no peers. Up front, in the much-sought after David Villa and the Madrileno “El Nino,” Fernando Torres, Spain has the best striking combination in the tournament.
Still, there is Spain’s historic propensity for failure in the big event but their 2008 Euro championship victory certainly provides a platform from which to operate with the highest expectations. And, it’s difficult to root against del Bosque – after managing the famed “Galacticos” so beautifully he did not deserve to get screwed by the Real Madrid brass.
As a Liverpool fan who has no affection for the concept of the nation (club before all else), I am rooting for a number of Spanish Reds – some, sadly, ex-Liverpool players. The Real Madrid pair Alonso and Arbeloa, in addition to Torres and Pepe. Torres sometimes still frustrates me. He scores brilliant goals, but he can also fail to trap a ball properly, and looks as though he were really that Leicester donkey Emile Heskey in blond Madrid disguise. But, he can sure nick ’em.
But I’m picking Argentina. Look, I know, Maradona’s muy loco and now that he’s threatened to run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if Argentina win a third Copa Mundial, one is almost compelled, if only for the sake of mental health (how could such an image ever be eviscerated from global consciousness?), to hope that the residents of Baires will be spared such a horrific sight. “Kaalgaat hardloop die moeskon rond in Buenos Aires,” is how football fans in the Cape Flats are describing this aesthetic-threatening spectre, and the Flats knows more than a thing or two about mad men that claim to be recovering drug addicts and that once played futbol. No, please Lord, no, let this cup pass our eyes by. In the YouTube era, no one is safe, especially not the children, young, impressionable and morbidly fascinated as they may be by that famously liposuctioned gut. Keep on not only your shirt, but ALL your clothes, Diego.
Still, Argentina has three things – ok, maybe four – going for it. In “El Conejo de secundo,” (“Rabbit II,” 1978 Copa Mundial winner, the left back, Alberto Tarantini, was the original Conejo, so nicknamed for his buck teeth), Argentina has the tournament’s best captain. Javier Mascherano believes in Argentina: he plays for club, Liverpool, and country, as though he believes in them absolutely. Watch him tackle, track back, even, this defensive central midfielder, play at right back for his club. It’s as though he’d always played there. “Masch” is a man of faith, a quality that trumps skill (of which he has his fair share) and distribution (not his strength). “Masch” leads by sheer force of will. “Masch” is tough. He’ll bring everyone along; he’ll cover the defense with those short, determined, jack rabbit strides. That’s why it makes sense Maradona has left out Esteban Cambiasso. Cambiasso was, arguably, the best player in the Champions League this year and you have to feel for him, having to watch the Copa Mundial on TV. But, you want to your captain to know that it’s his team and that he doesn’t have a talented player, one with probably more skill than him, breathing down his neck. So, let’s find a place for a veteran who really is a nice guy and won’t complain too much about sitting in the dugout for the majority of the tourney. Thanks for making the trip, Esteban.
Up front the Argentines have players who can score. Diego Milito, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and another buck-toothed wonder, Carlos Tevez. Aguero and Milito both have a nose for goal and Tevez, he of the deep lying, occasionally aimless runs, can surprise you from distance. Or these four can terrify you with their quickness and skill, and their selfish desire for goals and glory. There is more than a touch of laziness about Aguero; he can hang around for days without breaking a sweat, and then, in the vital moment, up he pops with a bit of invention and a finishing touch you can only marvel at. That’s how you win the Copa Mundial. With selfish guys who love seeing their name on the score sheet.
Of course, in “Lio” the Argentines have the best player in the world. We’ve all marveled at this 5 foot nothing master of the dribble, we’ve all watched mesmerized as he bamboozles opponents, ghosting, like Zidane, into the right place at the right moment. And, he can leap, can’t he, for a little man? Those short passes, driving a team forward, changing play, and, above all, creating space; Messi opens up the field, an ability that is, truly, a thing of beauty. And, that touch: sure, delicate; the balance, revealing a core strength that frightens big defenders; and, that striking ability. Maradona’s instructed to him to roam, as though he’d do anything else. Can’t help it, it’s just the way the lad plays: as though he owns the park.
Speaking of Zidane, whose ghost will, rightly, haunt this World Cup in every match the cynical Italians are involved in (god, I can’t wait to see them sent packing, those arch-destroyers of the beautiful game), I expect that we’ll see Javier Mascherano take a leaf from the book of his French counterpart in South Africa. Everyone knows that Maradona’s crazy, and hardly worthy of the title tecnico (and massively unworthy of predecessors such as Cesar Menotti and even the much maligned Marcelo Bielsa and José Pekerman), so “Masch” will lead the Albicelestes. Convinced that Raymond Domenech had more or less lost his marbles in 2006, Zizou and other senior French players took over the team and guided it all the way to the “coup de boule” final. Thank you, Zizou, for restoring a semblance of integrity to the game in the face of characteristic Italian bad faith.
Needless to say, “Masch” is no Zizou, but he’s blessed with, as I said, intense belief. The former River Plate star is not going to South Africa for a vacation; he’s going to win. And he will play every minute of every game premised on that belief. He will expect nothing less from his team mates. I’d love to see that gap-toothed smile, framed by a face bearing five day stubble and a receding hairline, beaming as he hoists the trophy on July 11. Following which, immediately, I want him to tranquilize Maradona and glue the coach into his sweats.