Finally, Argentina’s World Cup campaign came to a very sudden halt. As the second, third, and fourth German goals followed in quick succession, the two-time World Cup winners, coached by Diego Maradona, were heading out of the competition in the quarterfinals.
Maradona was often criticized by the media, but he appeared to have found a winning formula for his country. While his decisions were widely derided during qualification, now he was being hailed as a tactical genius, having united the squad and turned them into an unstoppable force.
However, Germany's 4-0 thrashing of Argentina ended their chance for glory in South Africa. It was a crushing defeat, but in addition to the exit, it ruthlessly exposed the Argentines' weaknesses.
In a team so naturally gifted, it is often difficult to pinpoint one area of weakness. However, within this Argentina team, the weakness was all too obvious from the very first game.
Argentina did not have a solid, dependable, right back at the World Cup, and this proved their downfall.
However, it highlights the greatest mistake of Diego Maradona’s controversial managerial reign: his failure to select Javier Zanetti.
While Maradona undoubtedly made errors during the World Cup qualifying campaign, no mistake was more vital to Argentina’s success than his decision to exclude Zanetti from the World Cup squad.
Capped 136 times by his country, Zanetti captained his nation for a number of those games. In 2007, he became Argentina’s most capped player ever in the country’s history.
He was reliable, dependable, experienced, and a born leader —e verything Argentina appeared to lack at that position.
Javier Zanetti was influential in Inter Milan’s Champions League campaign this season, where he led his club to glory, lifting the trophy in May. He has been a stalwart of the Inter side that has won so many trophies over the last decade.
Maradona’s decision to exclude him was inexplicable, to say the least. His form was still outstanding, and his worth to the national team was unquestionable. The manager was heavily criticised for the decision, and all the criticism was justified following Argentina’s unceremonious exit from the World Cup.
The right back position looked dubious in Argentina’s opening game, a 1-0 win over Nigeria. Maradona opted to play Jonas Gutierrez in the role, despite his club position as a left winger. Gutierrez was exposed time and time again, by a weak Nigeria side, and he was at fault for many of Nigeria’s chances. However, Argentina escaped with a win, largely due to an inspirational performance by Lionel Messi.
Although Gutierrez improved in their win over South Korea, he was often out of position, and unsurprisingly, looked anything but a natural right back, picking up a second yellow card in two matches and a suspension in the process.
This allowed Nicolas Otamendi his World Cup opportunity, where he was largely untroubled against a dreadful Greece side that looked devoid of any creativity whatsoever. Argentina recorded a third successive victory, setting up a second round tie with Mexico.
Gutierrez had now been replaced by Otamendi, and the young right back played against Mexico, too. He was again largely untroubled, but questions remained about his ability and concentration. It was suggested that their quarterfinal opponents, Germany, may look to expose the Velez right back as the weakest link.
Unfortunately, this was evident in their quarterfinal clash, as Germany attacked Otamendi at every opportunity. The youngster was clearly out of his depth, and a disappointing performance was capped with a mistake that led to the German side’s second goal, effectively putting the game out of reach.
The right back position became an area of weakness for Argentina and was brutally exposed by Germany. In previous games, the position had been exposed by much weaker opposition. Would the opposition have attacked Argentina’s right flank so often had Zanetti been playing? If they had, how much success would they really have had?
However, Maradona had limited options in the squad at right back. His decision to play a left winger out of position was questionable at the very least, while the inexperienced Otamendi could not cope with the quality of the opposition on such a grand stage.
The solution to the problem was Javier Zanetti.
Maradona failed to see this before the tournament, and it was a decision that cost Argentina dearly. It might have even cost Maradona his job.
While it can be argued that other players did not perform, the right back was a clear weakness in the Argentina side, which heavily contributed to their exit from the World Cup. Now, the nation has to reflect on what could have been, but the question still remains: Would Javier Zanetti have made a difference?
The answer: most definitely.