History beckons Argentina's golden generation
RIO DE JANEIRO -- The weight of expectation that accompanies a golden generation can no doubt be heavy. When such a group includes a transcendent performer like Lionel Messi, the burden is doubled. Yet now, as this group of Argentina players prepares for Sunday's World Cup final against Germany, it finds itself one victory away from its ultimate goal.
Of course, for a country like Argentina, the expression "golden generation" is ill-fitting to a degree, as it is more applicable to countries that have rarely, if ever, won anything. But Argentina is a country that has long provided an assembly line of talent to clubs around the world. The Albiceleste also has two World Cup titles in its trophy cabinet, and has the honor of producing arguably the best player ever to play the game in Diego Maradona.
Yet the past -- both the distant and more recent varieties -- can serve to pressurize the present, and great expectations have surrounded this current generation of players for some time now. From 2004 to 2008, Argentina won two FIFA U-20 World Cups and two Olympic gold medals. Some will no doubt scoff at the latter achievement, but the Olympic tournament has long taken on significant importance in the Americas, no matter what some of the game's power brokers in Europe might think. The efforts by Brazil to stack teams at the two most recent tournaments are testament to this. As for Argentina, expectations are always high, but the success in those tournaments -- and the presence of Messi -- further fueled the sense that something special was possible.
The impact of those four title-winning sides can be found all over this current Argentina team, with 10 members of the current roster having played on at least one of those championship teams. Forward Sergio Aguero played on three of them, having been part of the 2005 and 2007 U20 teams, as well as the 2008 Olympic team that took gold in Beijing. During Wednesday's semifinal victory over the Netherlands, the starting lineup contained six players who played on one of those four youth sides, with Aguero coming on later.
The irony is that some lesser-known members of that generation have carried Argentina into the final. At the beginning of the tournament, it was thought that the "Fantastic Four" of Messi, Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria would be the ones to provide inspiration. But injuries have limited the impact of Di Maria and Aguero. Messi, while delivering some moments of brilliance, has largely been a subdued figure in the knockout rounds.
But the key to any championship side is to have defensive solidity, especially on days when the big offensive guns are rendered ineffective. This is where the steady hand of manager Alejandro Sabella has been most felt. The contributions of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas Biglia, Sergio Romero and in particular holding midfielder Javier Mascherano have been critical. Argentina has gone from having one player charged with winning the ball (Mascherano) to having three, with Biglia and Enzo Perez working for the team. Even Lavezzi has gotten in on the defensive act, working for the team at the expense of his own attacking game.
Such an approach won't win many style points, but as legendary Argentine club manager Carlos Bianchi wrote for ESPNDeportes.com, "In this highly competitive sport, aesthetics goes hand in hand with the practical, and more so in a knockout stage. In this regard, Argentina played 'smart' and that's what matters."
It is this balance that differentiates this Argentina side from the one that fell 4-0 in the World Cup quarterfinals against Germany four years ago. When these two teams square off Sunday at the famed Maracana, there's almost no chance the spaces so prevalent that day in Cape Town will be available to the Germans.
It is an approach that has come just in time for this generation of Argentine players. The group that performed so well in youth tournaments starting in 2005 is now, to a large degree, in its late 20s. While Messi seems destined to stick around for one more World Cup, other players will no doubt begin to make way for younger talents, meaning Sunday is their final chance.
All hopes now rely on Messi and the Albiceleste's intelligent approach. If that combination can lead Argentina to victory, then this generation of players will be golden indeed.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.