Copa America: Can Lionel Messi Lead Argentina's Bridesmaids To The Altar?

Perennial underachievers Argentina have had to watch Brazil win two World Cups and four Copa Americas since they last won it 1993, will the plan to play like Barcelona bear fruit?
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Perennial underachievers Argentina have had to watch Brazil win two World Cups and four Copa Americas since they last won it 1993, will the plan to play like Barcelona bear fruit?

It's one of life's great mysteries: how Argentina, indisputably a nation to have bequeathed the world with a Tiffany's display case of footballing talent over the last quarter of a century, has consistently departed empty-handed from major tournament football.

Indeed, their last senior title came some 18 years ago in the 1993 Copa America, 2 gold medal-winning teams at the last two summer Olympics offering scant compensation for a country that lives and breathes football.

As a teen who watched in wonder as Maradona sliced through the England side in 86 to score arguably the greatest World Cup goal ever, my memory bank is full of iconic Argentine goals. Caniggia's curling top corner strike from an acute angle against Nigeria in 94; Zanetti peeling off the wall before burying that ingeniously worked free-kick against England in 98; Maxi Rodriguez' wonder volley to win that great last 16 game against Mexico in 2006. And Cambiasso completing the magical 26-pass move against Serbia, also in 2006 .

And yet, for 18 long years it has been a story of Copa and World Cup heartache, a drought made worse by arch rival Brazil's success, in the shape of 4 Copa titles and 2 World Cups.

Was 1994 the start of the malady, when Maradona was thrown out of the World Cup for testing positive for banned substance ephedrine? Without their spiritual leader Argentina crashed out in the last 16 against Romania.

In 1998 arch disciplinarian Passarella stubbornly refused to select two of his country's most gifted stars in Fernando Redondo and Claudio Caniggia because of their long hair. The side was sunk after Bergkamp's moment of genius in the quarter-final.

With Sergio Batista now in charge, the pack is being shuffled once more as he looks to bring out the best in Messi by getting the side to imitate Barcelona. Another foolhardy plan or a masterstroke?

In 2006 they lit up the tournament with a brand of pass-and-move football that had every neutral purring. THAT goal against Serbia remains a high-tide mark for international football but cagey coaching cost them dear in the quarter-final against Germany. Pekerman subbed Riquelme, left Messi on the bench, and fatally tried to defend a 1-0 lead. Klose equalised with ten minutes left, and there was a sickening inevitability as they lost on penalties against the cold-blooded spot-kick supremos.

In 2010, Maradona's squad selection was clouded by a combination of madness, personal ill will and sentiment. He had issues with Riquelme, left him out, and played the clearly past it Veron instead. He took and played Gutierrez of Newcastle, Bayern's error-prone Demichelis, and picked 35-year-old Martin Palermo – reward for his crucial last minute winner versus Peru during the qualifiers – ahead of Crespo.

Some claim Maradona did not select Crespo because he did not want him to pull further clear of him on the all-time Argentine goal-scoring chart (Crespo has 35 to Maradona's 34). He couldn't find a squad place either for two of Inter's outstanding stars in their Champions League-winning season, in Cambiasso and Zanetti, while Inter's in-form striker, Diego Milito, hardly played a minute.

For Zanetti this was the second World Cup running he had been snubbed, while the sublimely talented Pablo Aimar was also overlooked by Maradona, as was Diego Milito's younger brother, Gabi.

When you have such riches it is tough to find the perfect blend. Argentina being Argentina, even when they do, they still contrive to get beaten, as they did at the last Copa America, in 2007. At that tournament their play touched footballing nirvana once more as they cruised through to the final, only to be outmuscled by Dunga's Brazil, whose ruthless counter-attacking play tore them to shreds, 3-0. Tears were shed once more in the streets of Buenos Aires.

Finally a chance for retribution arrives in the form of the Copa America which Argentina, no pressure, are hosting. With Sergio Batista now in charge, the pack is being shuffled once more as he looks to bring out the best in Messi by getting the side to imitate Barcelona. Another foolhardy plan or a masterstroke? One consequence is expected to be Tevez being left out while there remains talk of a recall for 32-year-old Riquelme after a 3-year exile from the national side.

The legendary Javier Zanetti – the most capped player in the history of Argentine football – will be desperate to finish his international career on a high. And for Messi, to truly be judged one of the all-time greats of the game, he needs to start winning international honours, and pronto.

The next instalment in the heart-rending saga of Argentinian football is sure to be epic as a dream victory on July 24 at the historic El Monumental in Buenos Aires, finally burying the country's major tournament hoodoo, lies tantalisingly near.

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