Will Argentina Reach The Promised Land?

"The Copa has become treacherous: a win would bring to Argentina a gratification less intense than the frustration were they to lose." - Andres Prestileo, Columnist of La Nacion
Suddenly, there are no certainties. The relegation of River Plate last Sunday, an event that seemed impossible and yet in hindsight looks inevitable – a slow motion slither of nine games without a win at the end of the season as the cliff edge got closer and closer – has had a profound effect on the mood of Argentinian football. If something as seismic as River being relegated can happen, who knows what the Copa America, which begins on Friday, might bring.

For the hosts, there is great opportunity, but with that comes great pressure, and it is the sense of expectation that is exercising commentators in the week leading up to the tournament. River's collapse showed what an albatross expectation can be. As the columnist Andres Prestileo wrote in La Nacion this week, "the Copa has become treacherous: a win would bring to Argentina a gratification less intense than the frustration were they to lose." Little wonder Sergio Batista, the tough-tackling bearded anchor of Argentina's 1986 World Cup winners who replaced Diego Maradona as national coach after the World Cup, has spent much of the buildup talking about the need for "patience" and insisting the priority is fashioning a side for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

If they do win on home soil, Argentina will go back ahead of Uruguay as the most successful side in Copa América history, but Argentina have not won a major tournament since 1993, and have not beaten anybody apart from Mexico in the knockout stage of the World Cup since 1990 (not including penalties). The shambles of the World Cup, when Maradona's team was hammered in the quarter-final by Germany was just the continuation of two decades of underachievement; at the moment particularly, there is a tremendous fear of talent being wasted. If you have a player like Lionel Messi, you really need to make the most of him, especially when he is backed up by players as gifted as Carlos Tevez and Sergio Agüero, players most nations would happily build a team around.

Batista led Argentina to Olympic gold three years ago, and has brought with him a welcome sense of authority, but it remains to be seen how long that lasts amid the fervour of a home tournament. Initially it seemed he had decided you can have too much of a good thing and looked likely to start against Bolivia in La Plata on Friday with Messi as a false nine flanked by Angel Di María and Ezequiel Lavezzi. Reports from training, though, suggest Tevez could yet get the nod ahead of Di María on the right. Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti have been recalled from their exile, and the midfield three of Javier Mascherano, Cambiasso and Ever Banega looks far better balanced than anything in Maradona's reign.

A comfortable win over Bolivia would help Argentina erase the shame of their most embarrassing moment under Maradona – the 6-1 World Cup qualifying defeat at altitude in La Paz – but anything else would lead to clamours for change, with Lavezzi and Di María the most vulnerable. It remains to be seen what effect River's relegation will have on the atmosphere; will the sense of grief – and in context that's not too strong a word – felt by a vast swath of the nation's fans make them more desperate for compensatory success with the national team, or will it just leave them numb?

In that regard, it's probably no bad thing the tournament, unlike previous Copas in Argentina, is being taken around the country, away from the crucible of Buenos Aires to Jujuy and Salta in the north, Mendoza and San Juan in the west and Córdoba and Santa Fe in the central belt. The final will be held at El Monumental, the scene of rioting after River's relegation play-off defeat to Belgrano on Sunday and venue of the 1978 World Cup final, but before that the closest the tournament gets to the capital is La Plata.

The horror prospect for Argentina is not merely that they don't win, but that Brazil do, lifting the Copa for the fifth time in six attempts. (The possibility of them beating Argentina in the final is almost too horrifying for the hosts to contemplate; if that did happen in the first game at El Monumental after River's relegation, there would have to be some sort of exorcism before the stadium could be used again).

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