A long-time assistant coach might be the man to finally bring the World Cup back to Argentina
In 1981, Carlos Bilardo, the coach of the Argentine club Estudiantes, was in need of a playmaking midfielder. The player he wanted was 7,000 miles away, and El Narigón, the big nose, was broke. Still, he set off to West Yorkshire in pursuit of Leeds United’s Alejandro Sabella. The Falklands-Malvinas situation was beginning to get tense, and Bilardo convinced his younger countryman that it was time to come home. Bilardo even needed Sabella to lend him the money for his plane ticket home, but it turned out to be worth it: The two would go on to win the league title together the following year.
Their relationship would shape Sabella’s future as a coach and leaves him well-placed as Argentina’s current manager to end a trophy drought dating back to Copa América 1993—and, as far as World Cups go, to 1986, with Bilardo in charge.
Argentina’s footballing philosophy is—somewhat reductively—split into two schools: Bilardismo y Menottismo. The former relies on defensive solidity and, values winning above any aesthetic considerations. On the other hand, Cesar Luis Menotti, the 1978 World Cup-winning coach, is something of a bohemian coffee-house philosopher and a socialist. He maintains that soccer has a cultural significance and encouraged his attacking players to express themselves. The feud between the two has raged for decades, and so it came as no surprise that, upon Sabella’s appointment, Menotti told Radio Cooperativa:“I don’t know why they chose him… I don’t know what his project is.”
Sabella was formed in the River Plate tradition—it’s where he began his 15-year playing career as a technically gifted, creative midfielder—but schooled in Bilardismo at Estudiantes. The key to his success since taking over Argentina’s national team in August 2011has been finding a medium between Argentine football’s contrasting philosophies.
After hanging up his boots in 1989, Sabella took to coaching and served as assistant to legendary River Plate captain Daniel Passarella for almost two decades; together they would go on to coach Parma in Italy, the Uruguayan national team, Monterrey in Mexico, Brazil’s Corinthians, River Plate (twice), and the Argentine national team, which they led to the quarterfinals of the 1998 World Cup. Finally, in 2009, he became a head coach. He returned to Estudiantes and immediately ushered in the club’s greatest period since Osvaldo Zubeldía’s antifutbolistas claimed three successive Copa Libertadores between 1968–70.
In 2009, Sabella’s Estudiantes, led by Juan Sebastian Veron, won the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 40 years. In 2010, the team won its second league title in almost 25 years. Perhaps most astonishing, Estudiantes came within seconds of beating Barcelona in the final of the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup—a match they lost after giving up an equalizer to Pedro in the last-minute of regulation and then the winner to Leo Messi in extra time.
Despite his lack of experience as a senior coach, Sabella’s appointment as Sergio Batista’s successor was an uncharacteristically shrewd move by the Argentine Football Association. The Argentine squad has some of the finest forwards in the game; its problems are at the back. Sabella’s success had been built largely on placing his team’s collective functionality over individuals. His Estudiantes conceded just six goals in 14 games en route to the Libertadores title and in the last two league campaigns conceded the fewest goals in the country.
To answer Menotti’s question, Sabella’s “project” was, simply, Project Messi and solidifying the defense. The Barcelona star had failed to consistently reproduce his club form at international level, leading fans to question his commitment. “Messi no canta el himno nacional,” is a common refrain. “Messi doesn’t sing the national anthem.” The implication: He’s a Spaniard.
“We need to make Messi feel comfortable… we must try to be the best possible team to help him,” Sabella insisted after taking the job in 2011. “We have to get the team to be more compact, occupy the spaces… create a climate that will allow him to be happy. I think we have to let him be tranquilo.”
Sabella began by ridding Los Albicelestes of a problem: Carlos Tevez. “El Jugador del pueblo”—the player of the people—remained the most popular player with the fans, so much so that former coach Sergio Batista called him back at the last minute for Copa America 2011, where Tevez underwhelmed. He grumbled about playing out of position and missed the decisive kick as Argentina lost to Uruguay on penalties in the quarterfinals.
The peoples’ loss has undoubtedly been Argentina’s gain. Tevez had long underperformed for his country and was said to be a divisive presence in the squad. Sabella, who has never called him up, left him off the final World Cup squad.
In a decision reminiscent of Bilardo handing Diego Maradona the armband ahead of the 1986 tournament, Sabella has appointed Messi captain. Leo, part of an attacking triumvirate with Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín, responded by instantly finding his form. He finished 2012 by equalling Gabriel Batistuta’s record of 12 Argentina goals in a calendar year, and he hit 10 during qualification—a total bettered only by CONMEBOL’s top scorer, Luis Suárez with 11.
Lack of quality in defensive positions is a much bigger problem. “My job is to disguise that imbalance in the best way possible,” Sabella said in March. He seems to be making headway, finishing qualifying with the most goals scored and the second-fewest conceded. He now has a real chance to grab Argentina’s first title in over 20 years, particularly after a favorable draw both in terms of logistics and potential opposition.
He owes much to Bilardo, and indeed Passarella, but Alejandro Sabella is his own man. This time he’s flying solo, with glory now visible just over the Brazilian horizon.