Julio Grondona returns, on Monday, from a FIFA congress in Zurich. When he flew out to Switzerland last week he told the press that the 27th, when he returned, would be the day on which he would be announcing the new manager of the Argentine senior men’s national team. The commonly held view is that it will be one of four men. Or, in the style of an Adidas advert, one of Maradona +4. But El Diego surely doesn’t stand a chance. The others in the running are Miguel Angel Russo, Diego Simeone, Carlos Bianchi and Sergio Batista. How, then, might each of these men do, if given the job? What have they done previously to merit consideration? And who will it be? It’s an utterly pointless exercise to try and speculate of course, but it might make for a story worth reading. So here we go…
Before we start, for any readers who are new to HEGS, or even those who are already familiar with my writings but have never been quite sure on this issue: I am not, of course, Argentine. Nor do I support the selección to a great degree of fanaticism. If Argentina were to play my own country – unlike one or two of this website’s readers who’ve contacted me in the past – I’d be cheering wholeheartedly for England. When England aren’t involved, though, I want to see Argentina win, and win well.
This preference is helped a hell of a lot recently by the kind of football the side are capable of. An Argentina side playing to their strengths are capable of becoming the best in the world – or at least of giving any tournament its most memorable moments, as we saw in the 2006 World Cup and the following year’s Copa América. This article is about whether the men in the running can bring that kind of football back. It’s entirely subjective, of course. It’s also going – if Grondona really is able to make his announcement already – to be out-of-date within a few hours of going online (and I won’t be able to update the site with news of Basile’s successor until the evening). But what the hell. The competitors are (drumroll please)…
Miguel Angel Russo (currently boss of San Lorenzo):
Listed first in this list because, according to Mundo Albiceleste, he could well be the man who’s set to be unveiled today. Russo is currently managing the Torneo Apertura leaders, having stepped into the breach left by Ramón Díaz after San Lorenzo’s Copa Libertadores elimination. Those are some very big boots to fill, but Russo, so far, has been up to the task. After losing their inspirational previous manager, Russo led El Cuervo to a 4th place finish in the Clausura, to add to the 2005 Torneo Clausura title won with Vélez Sársfield, and the 2007 Copa Libertadores with Boca Juniors.
If Russo’s named as Argentina boss, there’s some good news which, all the same, gives rise to an important question: in the 2007 Copa Libertadores win he got the best form out of Juan Román Riquelme that the playmaker had shown since Villarreal’s run to the semi-final of the 2006 European Cup. That, of course, given the issues that surrounded Basile before he quit, raises the question of whether Russo’s Argentina too would be built around the Boca man. Perhaps so – but there’s also the fact that for the majority of his career, Russo has worked with teams who don’t feature Riquelme, and to good effect. This is a man who’ll have a Plan B at the very least – and quite possibly Plans C, D and E as well.
How happy he’ll be with making it public knowledge that he’ll leave at the end of the season is another matter. If the announcement is indeed on Monday the 27th, Russo has surely already been consulted and given his blessing – and the remaining question in that case is how it will affect San Lorenzo’s title run-in.
Diego Simeone (currently boss of River Plate):
Simeone is the most troublesome of the nominees. On the one hand, he’s Argentina’s third most capped player of all time (Roberto Ayala overtook him during the 2006 World Cup, and was overtaken in turn by Javier Zanetti), a figure the current team would surely look up to for his achievements and already a proven title-winner in a fledgling managerial career. Since he became a manager, Simeone’s had four attempts at a league title (we can’t include his brief spell in charge of Racing, because no-one could have done anything with them in the state they were when he retired as a player to take the manager’s job), and has been successful on two ocassions – both at the first time of asking with the club in question, taking the 2006 Apertura with Estudiantes, and the 2008 Clausura with River.
The question marks hanging over Simeone are his lack of experience, and his current predicament. He’s a winner, that much is clear, but can a manager who’s only been doing the job for two-and-a-half years really be trusted with a position in charge of his country? River’s current position at the foot of the Apertura also surely precludes him from being offered the job – although ironically it would make it a lot easier to prise him away from his current employers. Even in winning the Clausura, though, River never totally impressed; Juan Pablo Carrizo in goal was one of their most important players.
Ariel Ortega, so key to the triumph, has been farmed out to Independiente Rivadavia de Mendoza. In part that’s because Simeone’s a disciplinarian, which isn’t in itself a bad thing, although a lack of flexibility can be. But he’s been unable to find a system that works without El Burrito, even with a wealth of attacking options. Subtitute the name of River’s main playmaker for that of their great rivals Boca Juniors, and the predicament sounds very similar to the one I’ve been levelling at Alfio Basile for the last year, doesn’t it?
Carlos Bianchi (currently a columnist for ESPN):
This is one appointment that surely very few Argentines would argue with. Bianchi’s playing career took in Vélez Sársfield and three French clubs (Stade Reims, PSG and Racing Strasbourg) as well as seven goals in eleven caps for Argentina. He’s scored more top flight goals (across a whole career, across all countries) than any other Argentine in history – including Alfredo Di Stéfano – and is thirteenth in the world list. He’s also Vélez’s all-time top scorer, with 206 (more, it’s worth point out, than Martín Palermo has for Boca). Yet all of his goalscoring achievements barely get a mention when put alongside his phenomenal success as a manager.
After taking charge of Stade Reims on his retirement as a player in 1984, and also spending time at OGC Nice and Paris FC, Bianchi returned to Vélez in 1993. In the next three years, he won three league titles, a Copa Libertadores, a Copa Interamericana, and beat the great Milan side in the 1994 Intercontinental Cup. In 1996-1997 he spent an unlucky season in charge of Roma in Italy, before taking time out to commentate. Then, in 1998, it was back to Argentina, this time to Boca Juniors, for more trophies. He had two spells there, from 1998 until 2001, and then again for a season in 2003-2004. Over both periods at the club, Bianchi took the Xeneize to four league titles, three Copas Libertadores (the first ending a spell of 22 years without a continental championship for the club) and two Intercontinental Cups, as well as losing the 2004 Copa Libertadores final to Once Caldas on penalties.
In short, Bianchi is terrifyingly bloody successful as a manager. His spell at Vélez was marked by his team’s lack of an enganche, which demonstrates his ability to make different systems work from that which is expected of him. If Simeone is inexperienced, Bianchi is anything but. If Russo won a Copa with Boca, it was thanks to the foundations laid at the turn of the century by Bianchi himself. Club success doesn’t always translate to the international scene, it’s true. But it’s almost the only criteria we can go by, so Bianchi surely deserves a shot at the top job at some point.
Sergio Batista (currently coach of Argentina’s various youth teams):
Batista led the Under 23s (plus Riquelme and Mascherano) to Olympic gold in Beijing a couple of months ago, and the AFA have already said he’ll be taking charge for Argentina’s friendly away to Scotland in November. Having worked with the youth sides, Batista’s appointment would be similar to that of José Pekerman when the latter took over from Marcelo Bielsa, and the former world champion (he played all seven matches for the selección in Mexico ’86) would surely command respect from the older members of the side as well as the younger players he’s already worked directly with.
Batista’s potential system for the national side isn’t quite as clear. Argentina rarely shone as brightly in the 2008 Olympics as they had in 2004. A bonus, however, is that El Checho seems geared towards the future of the side. Lionel Messi has made comments since Basile’s resignation which suggest he favours Batista for the role, and the admiration is clearly mutual. Whilst it would be dangerous to go from a Riquelme-dependence to a Messi-dependence, of course, Batista also surely wouldn’t ignore the good performance, during the Olympics, of Angel Di María. Another point is that under his tutelage, Messi and Sergio Agüero produced some flashes of fantastic football.
An appointment from within would provide some continuity, and it’s clear the AFA already trust Batista, but would it be a little too soon? Pekerman took charge of the seniors after a few years with the youth setup – Batista only started working for the AFA earlier this year. All the same, he might not be a name many outside the country would recognise immediately, but he’d hardly be an unpopular choice with the fans.
The HEGS verdict, then?
Whoever gets the job will have changes to make and their own style to impose. Simeone will be a name for the future, but surely not for the present, given River’s position at present and his conspicuous failure to find a style of play for them since taking charge. Russo would seem to be the safest option for the AFA to present to the press – he’s currently in the game and is neither old enough to have become stuck in his ways, nor young and inexperienced as a manager. The heart, perhaps affected by memories of the last appointment from within, is pulled towards Batista.
The sensible option though, were it not for his recent inactivity, would surely be Bianchi. Outside Argentina, he’s had unspectacular managerial reigns in France, Spain and Italy, it’s true. His success in his own country, though, is completely unparalleled – four Copas Libertadores, three world championships and seven league titles speaks for itself – and would ensure his reception from the players would be a good one. Argentina have problems at present, but it’s not as if they’re lacking good players – only a coherent scheme and a guiding hand. Either Russo, Batista or Bianchi would be a good choice, in my opinion, but on past record, there’s only one man in the mix.