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Pekerman keeps cards close to chest

In a country where football stirs wild passions, anxiety is scaling among fans that the tournament could end yet again in disaster for the team.

india Updated: Jun 05, 2006 12:56 IST

Some players argue openly and bring internal issues out into the public arena, while publicly lobby for a place in the squad. Officials air opinions, the press makes its own demands. But Argentina's National coach Jose Pekerman speaks little and explains less.

In a country where football stirs wild passions, the mood is tense ahead of the World Cup, with anxiety growing among fans that the tournament could end yet again in disaster for the team. That is the current atmosphere surrounding the "albiceleste" - white and light blues - who were world champions in 1978 and 1986 and runners-up in Italy in 1990.

The already tense atmosphere was exacerbated when two of the country's key players, captain Juan Pablo Sorin and Juan Sebastian Veron, who has not been included in the National team, insulted each other and ended up fighting during the Champions League clash between their clubs, Villarreal and Inter Milan.

Pekerman keeps a low profile. This attitude has drawn a lot of criticism, particularly when results don't match the expectations, as was the case with the 32 defeats against Croatia in their friendly in March.

The coach finally laid his cards on the table by picking a relatively young squad for the World Cup. Veterans Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel were left out while exciting youngsters Leo Messi and Carlos Tevez were included.

Pekerman had already banished 2002 World Cup captain Veron, and has now gone for players who have won the World Youth Cup or the Olympic games gold medal.

"This is a very strong group... there's a historic potential and that's because of the richness of Argentine football," Pekerman said. The only players in Pekerman's squad who went to South Korea and Japan in 2002 under his predecessor Marcelo Bielsa are Roberto Ayala, midfielders Pablo Aimar and Sorin, and striker Hernan Crespo.

In one of his rare public appearances before the squad was named, Pekerman said he would choose players who are "in the best physical and technical shape", those "with a thirst for glory" and those who "sing the same tune". "We want them to be desperate to give Argentina a great performance," he said.

The president of the Argentinean Football Association (AFA) Julio Grondona, a powerful official who has ruled local football for almost 30 years, acknowledges the criticism of Pekerman, and even joins the choir every now and then.

However, he also defends him. "He is not very expressive, and people usually get him wrong, but he is not like (Fernando) De la Rua. Jose does what he doesn't say, exactly the opposite case," he said, comparing his coach to the former president of the country, who resigned in the midst of a severe crisis.

Another voice often heard, and one that again is very influential in the National team, is that of Maradona. In April he warned: "If Argentina don't clinch the title, we'll talk with Grondona. After the World Cup I might join the National team (as a coach)." Several days later, after a trip to Brazil, Maradona made a thoughtful reflection about the bitter, tense and confused atmosphere surrounding the team.

"I think we are worrying too much about the others, and tend to forget that we have a history of our own to defend," he said.

"We're worried about the rivals in Japan and we all know where that got us. We were out in the group stage. I believe it is time for Argentina to worry about Argentina and let the rivals worry about us," he said.

As usual, in football the results rule. And all those questions will be quickly forgotten if victories follow in Germany. However, everything will be a "national tragedy" if the team fails.

First Published: Jun 05, 2006 12:56 IST