So can a South American team end Europe’s hegemony this time in Qatar? Argentina’s shock loss to Saudi Arabia has put a bit of a dampener on that possibility perhaps.
Juan Arango is one of the best known voices on South American football and is currently a football pundit for Al Jazeera at the 2022 World Cup. In a special interview with TimesofIndia.com, Arango talked about a host of issues related to the World Cup, the favourites, the not so favourites, the dark horses and, of course, Argentina and Brazil.
Arango talked to TimesofIndia.com before the 2022 edition of the World Cup began.
So, how do you see the World Cup panning out for the South American teams?
Juan Arango: Argentina and Brazil are perennially the favourites. These teams are mentioned whenever you are talking about who can win the World Cup. They are always in the conversation.
Are they going to win it? We don’t know. Brazil hasn’t won in the last 20 years and Argentina hasn’t in the last 36 years, but they are always in the conversation.
In the past few World Cup cycles, a team that has been able to get deep into the tournament is Uruguay. They have been able to get out of the group stage in every World Cup cycle and finished fifth in 2018.
But, this World Cup is going to be very interesting. It looks like it is the end of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, maybe Diego Godin and Fernando Muslera, the stars of 2010.
This World Cup ends up being a passing of the torch for them. But, it still means that you have to compete. They have to get deep into the World Cup for them to have a successful one and they have a great chance of getting out of the group stage as well.
Ecuador is a different story with one of the youngest teams this World Cup. And I think they have an average age of around 25.4 years. If not the youngest, one of the youngest in this edition of the World Cup.
It is an interesting situation the way things are set up. Ecuador can end up getting knocked out of the group stages, or land up being in the quarter finals. So, it is a weird dynamic.
How strong is the Ecuador team?
Juan Arango: Ecuador is a relatively strong team. It is not very experienced in certain positions. The experience that they acquired in the World Cup qualifying in South America was even more invaluable to them.
If you keep in mind, we are talking about a national team that two years ago had little chances of qualifying.
Keep in mind, Jordi Cruyff, the then coach, resigned seven months later after taking over in February 2020. The pandemic had a lot to do with it.
The Ecuador federation went out and hired Gustavo Alfaro and he ended up becoming the coach of the national team. He brought in younger players.
A lot of young players like Moises Caicedo came through from Independiente del Valle, one the clubs in Ecuador. The Ecuador football federation does not have huge funds like their South American counterparts. But, they have been competitive, especially at the younger levels. They’ve won the Libertadores at the U-20 levels.
They’ve been very competitive within South American football.
What were the other changes Alfaro brought about?
Juan Arango: He brought about a different mentality. He demanded more competitiveness. He looked to bring in younger players. The players ended up playing the games which gave them experience.
This is a dynamic group. You have players like Piero Hincapié who had a good run at Bayer Leverkusen. Another player, Xavier Arreaga who plays in defence for Seattle Sounders, has great potential to go to Europe.
Their philosophy offers more pressure, more security. But, it has a lot of dynamic players going down the wings and a player in the middle who can pull the strings.
Are Argentina really the favourites?
Juan Arango: Are they really a favourite? Yes. Are they really the favourites? Probably not. You can also say that Argentina are unbeaten in their last 35 matches. They haven’t lost in the last three-and-a-half years.
They have a set philosophy and for most part they have muscle memory in terms of what they have to do with the ball, where their teammates are and where they have to be in reference to that. They understand the philosophy they play with and have a strong galvanised team. And to a certain extent, I think they do not have much to lose, as crazy as it sounds.
What about it being Messi’s last World Cup?
Juan Arango: You have other players too for whom this will be their last World Cup. You have other teams like Brazil and France who are as strong and may be stronger in other positions.
I mean Argentines are realistic. Is there a euphoria behind the Argentine national team? Yes. So, do Argentines want the national team to win? Of course, they do. But, they do understand Brazil is no joke
Look at Brazil’s entire call up, they are a strong team and so are teams like France.
Christopher Nkunku from France ends up getting injured and they bring in somebody else. You see players come into the French side and are at the same talent level as the first team.
France can probably field three teams for the World Cup…
Juan Arango: Yes, and it’s possible they still do not win it. When you see a motivated Messi, the way he is motivated. When you see the teammates around him motivated to succeed. It’s not ‘hey we want to win it for him, we also want to win it as well.’
Three-and-a-half years ago after the World Cup in Russia there was a great deal of uncertainty as to where the national team was heading. Messi was getting older and the new coach had experience only at the under 20 level. So there were question marks on why bring him in.
But, you can see now in terms of man management, philosophy, establishing a way to work, not just with the senior sides, but also bringing in former players that can work at different age levels. Diego Placenta is the coach of the U-15s, Pablo Aimar is the coach of the under-17s. Javier Mascherano, coach of U-20s and you also have Walter Samuel.
What about Brazil? Are you surprised with the team selection? Has the team toned down on flair?
Juan Arango: Brazil has toned down on the flair for the past 32 years. The Jogo Bonito football has not been around since the 1990 World Cup.
So when one sees the list of players for Brazil., the name that some of the outsiders may question Pedro from Flamengo ends up getting called up.
He played briefly at Fiorentina and returned to Flamengo. In most games, he is used as a super sub and there he touches the ball and it ends up being at the back of the net.
He turned into such a talismanic goalscorer that ended up removing Gabriel, a mainstay in the Brazilian national team.
Which are the other teams to watch out for?
Juan Arango: I like Senegal.
Minus Sadio Mane?
Juan Arango: Look at Senegal’s national team and tell me whether it is an inferior team. Yes, not as strong minus Mane, but not that weak either.
Look at Senegal’s starting line-up in the African Cup and qualifying team against Egypt. Is the team not as competitive as any of the teams out there?
Juan Arango: If things start rolling, maybe Germany and Spain. One can never go wrong with teams that have been consistent for years.
Is it likely to be an open World Cup?
Juan Arango: Yes, of course, it can be open. But at the end of the day, when you start getting into the quarters, it’s the usual suspects. Barring for one or two that usually come in and are able to crack their way through.