Germany vs. Argentina, Part III

Will it be the goal fest of 1986 or the negativity of 1990?

History will repeat itself with an Argentina-Germany rematch in the World Cup final. But will we get the thrills of 1986 or the grotesqueness of 1990?

Unfortunately, signs point to the prospect of a conservative, low-scoring affair on Sunday at the Maracanã. Nearly everyone realizes the best tactics against Germany are to pack it in and counterattack. (Everyone except Brazil, that is). And that has been Argentina’s approach, anyway, so there is little chance the Albiceleste will change.

Carlos Bilardo, who guided both the ’86-winning team and the ’90 squad and is a part of La Selección’s technical group now, tended to be a cutthroat defensive coach. He was willing to play a more open game in 1986 and it did work that year as Argentina beat Germany in the final 3–2. So Alejandro Sabella, a Bilardo disciple, has doubtless been asking his mentor: “What would you do?”

Well, here is what Bilardo did in the 1990 final at Stadio Olimpico in Rome. He put out the most cynical, defensive team possible, and only partly because of suspensions to Sergio Batista, Claudio Caniggia, Ricardo Giusti, and Julio Olarticoechea. Argentina nearly got away with it, even after Pedro Monzon was ejected in the 65th minute, the first time a player had been expelled in a World Cup final. But after referee Edgardo Codesal awarded a penalty for a soft Roberto Sensini foul on Rudi Voeller, Andreas Brehme’s penalty kick meant the Argentine dream of a repeat win was over.

In fact, the entire Argentine experience of 1990 seemed more like a nightmare. That team was conceived in Bilardo’s coaching image, and it took Bilardismo to its inevitable, anti-soccer conclusion, devolving as the tournament progressed. By the last minutes of the final, Argentina seemed to be disintegrating before our eyes. The team on the field was down to nine players (after Gustavo Dezotti was red-carded in the 87th minute). And Codesal could have ejected more during the protests following the penalty call.

There are enough similarities today to fear the worst. In 1990, Argentina depended on a goalkeeper who wasn’t supposed to be there when Sergio Goycochea replaced Nery Pumpido, who sustained a broken leg in the second game against the Soviet Union. Now the Argentina ’keeper is another Sergio—Romero—though many Argentinians believed the starter should have been Willy Caballero, who did not make the roster.

If the Albiceleste were going to produce any offense in 1990, it was up to a 29-year-old Diego Maradona to conjure something out of nothing and Caniggia to convert. That’s similar to the setup now, everything depending on 27-year-old Leo Messi and, possibly, Angel Di Maria or Gonzalo Higuain. But though this Argentina team has had difficulty scoring (eight goals in six matches) it has produced three more than the ’90 team in seven games.

S, let’s look at a positive: If anything, this team is evolving. Defensively, Argentina has become compact and that could, possibly, allow the team to find itself offensively, as well. There was no chance of anything happening offensively in 1990—nine defenders and only three forwards were listed on the roster. There are seven defenders and five forwards on the 2014 list, maybe another sign to be optimistic.

Bilardo was always prepared for a worst-case scenario and if he had doubts about going ultra-conservative, they were dispelled in the World Cup-opener in Milan. An extremely physical Cameroon team had two players ejected but the Indomitable Lions’ style was effective and they upset the Argentines, 1–0. That game set the tone for the tournament, and not just for Argentina. There were a record 16 red cards issued, and it was the lowest-scoring World Cup ever. The Albiceleste gave up trying to win, getting to the final with only two victories. (Ireland had a similar plan and was rewarded, reaching the quarterfinals without a victory.)

The impression you got at Stadio Olimpico on July 8, 1990, was that Argentina was a group of hardened pros who embodied Bilardo’s playing days on the Estudiantes teams of the ’60s. They just seemed surly. Everyone looked like they were in a bad mood.

In fact, Argentina in ’90 were a relatively young team. Seven players were 24 years old or younger (Abel Balbo, Fabián Cancelarich, Caniggia, Néstor Fabbri, Néstor Lorenzo, Sensini, Pedro Troglio) and only three (Edgardo Bauza, Ricardo Giusti, Julio Olarticoechea) were over 30.

Maybe there is a glimmer of hope for a more stimulating final because, though this Argentina team is actually older than the ’90 group, it seems like it could play positively, if it wanted to. Unlike 24 years ago, when Argentina scraped through the group stage in third place, the 2014 team won its group and had a perfect record until going to penalty kicks against Holland.

Going for goal might seem like suicide for any team against Germany. The best chance for this match to open up is for the Germans to score early. Or maybe Messi can invent some offense and we won’t have to wait for referee Nicola Rizzoli to intervene.