Argentina is a country that loves a dichotomy. Its entire history is the story of opposing poles: unitarian against federalist, Peronist against anti-Peronist, menottista against bilardista. On Wednesday, in the Copa America semi-final, will be played out the latest battle between the two predominant schools of the modern Argentinian game.
It’s true that one will be wearing the yellow of Colombia and one the red of Chile but both coaches are Argentinian, and as Brazil’s descent into decadence goes on, there can be no doubt that the intellectual heart of South American football lies in Argentina. Most intriguingly of all, one of the two coaches bears significant responsibility for the prominence of the ideas of the other.
In 1998, after Argentina had been beaten 2-1 by the Netherlands in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, Daniel Passarella resigned as coach. For once, there was an obvious candidate to replace him: Jose Pekerman, the national youth coach who had had led Argentina to victory at the Under-20 World Cup in 1995 and 1997.
Pekerman had been an unremarkable midfielder with Argentinos Juniors and Independiente Medellin before a knee injury ended his career at 28. He had taken on a series of odd jobs to support his family, working for a while as a taxi driver in Buenos Aires as he tried to find a coaching role. Eventually he had been taken on as an academy coach by Chacarita before, in 1982, aged 32, returning to work in the youth department at Argentinos. After a decade there, Pekerman had moved to Chile and worked as youth coach with Colo-Colo.
With his hollow cheeks and ascetic air, Pekerman fitted perfectly the Argentinian ideal of the coach as intellectual. “He has a strong personality,” said Hugo Tocalli, his long-time assistant. “Perhaps he doesn’t appear to be like that, but he is. He lives for football, he studies everything.” He was, in the dichotomy of the day, a menottista. He was a traditionalist. He liked a No10 making the play behind two strikers. He saw the romance of the enganche, the “hook” between the midfield and the forward line. He could have continued Passarella’s work, perhaps got the best out of Ariel Ortega or the emerging talents of Pablo Aimar and Juan Roman Riquelme, both of whom had been in his 1997 Under-20 World Cup winning squad.
But Pekerman turned the job down. More surprisingly, he took on the role of general manager, and recommended the appointment of Marcelo Bielsa, who had just won the league with Velez Sarsfield after earlier successes with Newell’s Old Boys. Bielsa was unique, not only in his eccentricity but in the fact that he fitted neither of the two dominant Argentinian schools of the time. He was idealistic and believed in attacking proactive football, which set him apart from the cynical pragmatism of Carlos Bilardo. But he also examined videos, adapted to the opposition, believed in constant drilling and repetition, which set him apart from the romanticism of Cesar Luis Menotti (which, in truth, was always overstated but what is important here is the image).
And so Pekerman invited in a new dichotomy, between his slow build-up focused around an enganche and the hard-pressing, relentless verticality of Bielsa. For 20 years it’s this, rather than the menottista-bilardista debate, that has been the true divide in the Argentinian game. Under Bielsa, Argentina played some excellent football, but flopped at the 2002 World Cup, eliminated in a group stage in which they had more shots and corners than any other side.
After Olympic success in 2004, he quit, citing emotional fatigue, and was replaced by Pekerman, who took Argentina to the World Cup quarter-final in 2006 with a side centred on Riquelme.
In 2007, Bielsa took the Chile national job and instilled his approach there, making it the undisputed national style. Under Jorge Sampaoli, a self-confessed “disciple” of Bielsa and another Argentinian, Chile last year won the Copa America, the first trophy in their history.
There had been a tailing off after Sampaoli resigned earlier this year, but in the last two games, Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side have rediscovered their verve. The demolition of Mexico in the quarter-final was a classic bielsista display, the pressing and the movement remorseless.
It was as though Pizzi, whose successes at club-level tended to come with a target-man, at last grasped how to deploy Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez. But it’s also true that Mexico panicked. The group games suggested a wildness to Chile, a recklessness that calmer opponents might exploit, particularly if they have a creator as gifted as James Rodriguez.
There are many now in Argentina who lament Bielsa’s influence, who see in the dour percussiveness of much Argentinian league football the result of a culture that has come to prioritise speed over skill (Bielsa, like Alf Ramsey, seems doomed to have his tactical legacy tainted by those inexpertly applying his methods). Pekerman stands for the old school, the more thoughtful Argentinian game.
As the competing theories clash in Chicago, Pekerman may perhaps wonder whether it was really such a good idea in 1998 to give bielsisme such a leg up.
This article was written by Jonathan Wilson, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 22nd June 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010