Argentina Taking World Cup Risk with Exile of Carlos Tevez

Daniel EdwardsFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2014

Juventus forward Carlos Tevez, of Argentina, celebrates at the end of a Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Parma at the Juventus stadium, in Turin, Italy, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Massimo Pinca)
Massimo Pinca

No matter how impressive their reigns were statistically or in terms of performance, coaches of the Argentina national team are judged on one thing, and one thing only. Without a World Cup win since 1986, Albiceleste fans are desperate to see the Jules Rimet Trophy return to Buenos Aires.

Mistakes made by the men in charge, be they real or perceived, are therefore seldom forgotten by those who watch Argentina toil in football’s biggest tournament.

Jose Pekerman's team of 2006 will be forever remembered for the wonderful possession football on display in Germany, typified by one of the greatest team goals of all time against Serbia in the group stages. The current Colombia coach, however, blotted his copybook in the last eight.

By choosing to withdraw Juan Roman Riquelme in that quarter-final against Germany, Pekerman was deemed to have made a fatal error. Any logic in that decision to bring on Julio Cruz, and the fact that the team only missed out on penalties, is irrelevant: Taking off the great playmaker was unforgivable.

Similarly, Diego Maradona's kamikaze tactics and anarchic approach to press relations and public statements made him one of the stars of South Africa 2010. But doubts were already circulating around the legendary player thanks to his move to leave out Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti.

A subsequent mauling against Germany in the quarter-finals, with young Nicolas Otamendi pitilessly humiliated at right-back, proved Diego's folly in dispensing with the evergreen Inter man, a decision that only accelerated his exit following the tournament.

Tevez has been in electric form for Juve this season
Tevez has been in electric form for Juve this seasonCarmelo Imbesi

A conservative man both with words and in his approach to the job, current coach Alejandro Sabella is the last man you would expect to court such controversy with his selections.

But there is one issue that could come back to haunt him given another Albiceleste failure: The seemingly inevitable decision to leave Juventus' Carlos Tevez watching from home.

The Argentine media, for whom the exuberant, outspoken striker is a favourite son, are pushing hard for his inclusion. But every time the subject comes up, Sabella, who has not included the ex-Manchester City, Manchester United, West Ham and Boca Juniors player once since taking over in 2011, has been emphatic in not giving Carlitos a way back into the frame.

"There will be no surprises," is one of the ex-Estudiantes man's favourite refrains when facing the media's incessant questioning.

"I do not talk about players who are not in the squad," is another dead bat that leaves interviewers without reply. All of which adds up to one conclusion: Tevez will not find a way into the final 23.

It is not within the remit of this article to discuss the merits of this decision. This author has done so elsewhere on the site, tackling the difficult question of how to narrow down the list for a nation that, with stars such as Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and more battling for a place, has an embarrassment of riches in the forward department.

I have argued elsewhere that, despite leaving behind one of the best attackers in the world, for tactical and morale questions, Tevez's absence is sound management from Sabella. But that counts for little in a country where the tenacious little striker is almost a national hero.

Carlitos was born in one of Buenos Aires' most violent, marginalized neighbourhoods. His grizzled features, uncompromising style, love for the game and exuberant celebrations earned him the nickname "The People’s Player."

A large part of that also came from his glorious early years playing for Boca. Winning trophies for the nation’s largest and most popular club gives him a cachet and local following that even Messi could not hope to equal.

To put it simply, Tevez is perhaps the best representative of working-class Argentine football since one Diego Armando Maradona; there was a reason that El Pibe de Oro was always closer to Carlitos than Lio during his roller-coaster term at the head of the national team.

Polls in newspapers and other media demonstrate how this feeling manifests. In a survey held by television channel TN, 90 percent of those who responded answered that Tevez had to be in the national team. Even more emphatically, albeit from three years ago, a 2011 Infobae poll found almost 64 percent favoured Carlitos over Messi. 

The pressure is not confined to cyberspace. In Argentina's last friendly match, a disappointing draw against Romania in Bucharest, the banner shown above flew from one of the stadium's balconies.

"Sabella, Tevez is Argentine," reads the simple message, an exhortation for the coach to stop the madness and include the People's Player in his rightful position. 

None of this should suggest that Sabella is making the wrong decision. He is a capable, thoughtful coach who would not discard players on a whim, let alone those with the talent of Tevez. If he is not convinced by the Juventus man or worried about his effect on the team, he should not be swayed; as arguably happened with predecessor Sergio Batista, eventually cajoled into including Tevez in his 2011 Copa America plans with disastrous consequences. 

But the coach's choice, right or wrong, adds an extra level of pressure to the Albiceleste as they chase the World Cup in the backyard of their arch football rivals. If they go on to win the tournament, or at the very least make the semi-final stages, the absence of Carlitos may just pass unnoticed. 

A failure to complete that objective, however, could make the aftermath a very different story. Argentina's media and vox populi has already lined up their reasons for an eventual World Cup debacle; and should an early exit occur, the ghost in the room for Sabella would make his position at the head of the selection very difficult indeed.