The Argentina 1986 Side Would Finish 6th at 2014 World Cup

Daniel EdwardsFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2014

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The 1986 Argentina World Cup team made history both at home and abroad as they secured a second title for the nation in just eight years. Diego Maradona more than anyone left an indelible print on the tournament, as he dragged the Albiceleste to victory. 

Twenty-eight years on, however, would that team be able to compete alongside 2014's top contenders? And would they have a better chance of glory than this year's Seleccion? 

Trying to compare different football eras is always a tricky prospect. The game moves on so quickly from year to year, constantly evolving. That evolution in technology, tactics and training just to name a few areas means that trying to establish meaningful comparisons between decades is a fraught business. 

That, of course does not put off many football fans, who love to debate whether a side from X year could have beaten Y. That sort of futile argument is part of the game's appeal; impossible to know for sure, there is nonetheless always fuel on both sides to sustain healthy discussions. 

So to add my own contribution to the debate, I will stick my neck on the line: The Argentina of 1986 would enjoy a decent World Cup, but as in 2006 and 2010 would fall at the quarter-final stage. 

Unlike the 1978 edition, the Albiceleste line-up was a far more down-to-earth prospect. Attacking coach Cesar Luis Menotti left after a disappointing performance in 1982, where the side, now powered by the genius of Maradona, failed to advance past the second round (in a two group-stage system). His replacement was night to El Flaco's day. 

Carlos Bilardo has become synonymous in Argentina with pragmatism and winning at all costs. As a player he was part of the merciless Estudiantes side that won three straight Copas Libertadores, as well as the Intercontinental Cup of 1968. 

A sign of the brutality of that side was glimpsed in the following year, as they took on Milan in the same competition. Argentine-born Nestor Combin finished the return leg with a broken nose and cheekbone by a series of vicious assaults, with Estudiantes 3-0 down on aggregate and determined to exact revenge. If it seemed that things could not get worse for Combin, he was wrong; after passing out on the pitch, as told by ESPN, he was arrested by Argentine police while still unconscious on charges of dodging national service. 

Bilardo back with the international set-up in 2010
Bilardo back with the international set-up in 2010Handout/Getty Images

Bilardo's Argentina side were not quite as bloodthirsty as the Pincharrata back in the day. But it was definitely a functional, rather than spectacular team. The Albiceleste were composed largely of honest, hard-working, domestic-based players, such as Sergio Batista, Jorge Luis Brown and Ricardo Giusti. Just seven of the squad played outside Argentina; in 2014, on the other hand, only Agustin Orion, Fernando Gago and Maxi Rodriguez represent local clubs. 

To that solid core, El Doctor added the stars. Jorge Valdano, at the peak of an international career curtailed on that one side by Mario Kempes, and on the other by Claudio Caniggia, came back from Madrid to act as Argentina's solitary forward. The wonderful Jorge Burruchaga, having moved to Nantes the previous year, was included in the middle of the park as a deeper-lying playmaker. 

Both World Cup-winning captain in 1978 Daniel Passarella and the genius Independiente playmaker Ricardo Bochini, were in the squad, only to be frozen out by Bilardo. The coach knew exactly how his team were going to play. They would not give an inch, getting the ball quickly up the pitch and using the flanks. Opposition incursions would be dealt with extreme prejudice. 

And if inspiration was lacking, there was one person the Argentina squad could turn to for inspiration. 

It is hard to remember any player having as big an impact on a single World Cup as Diego Armando Maradona. The statistics tell us that the little Napoli dynamo scored five goals, finishing joint-second in the standings behind Gary Lineker and out-hitting strike partner Valdano by one. But that simple piece of data does not tell the whole truth; Maradona, through controversial means and outrageously talented means, dragged the Albiceleste kicking and screaming to that triumph over West Germany in the final. 

Could Maradona still thrive in modern football? The answer must be yes. El Pibe de Oro was relentlessly attacked by defenders in that more rustic age, famously getting destroyed in the 1982 World Cup by Claudio Gentile in a display that almost warrants an age-appropriate warning. 

In 2014, he would have the protection from referees to run riot. But even so, 28 years onwards it is hard to see improved performances by Maradona translating into a successful campaign for the side he captains. 

As stated at the beginning, football has advanced light years since the Argentines lifted the trophy in Mexico City's iconic Estadio Azteca. Players are fitter, faster and more prepared for each game. The gap between Europe and South American football has widened to a chasm. 

Whereas in 1986 only the very best Argentina stars would go across the Atlantic Ocean, now even prospects of 19 and 20 years of age are being snapped up by European clubs. Picking a team composed of domestic-based players for the World Cup would be the equivalent of going with a C or D team to the world's most important tournament; and the difference in training and preparation between those European stars and those who stay home would immediately become evident. 

The Albiceleste would be competitive in Brazil. Certainly, with Bilardo's safety-first tactics and a proficient defence backed up by goalkeeper Nery Pumpido, not many sides would be able to get past them. But this time round, Maradona on his own would not be enough to drive them to glory. The group stage could be negotiated comfortably, and even a last-16 win is feasible. 

But in modern football, the greatness of one player can no longer make up for a team's overall deficiencies. The party has to come to an end some time, and that would be in the quarter-finals against one of the world's football heavyweights. 

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