It did not take long for Oman to prick Argentina’s confidence in the opening game in Group B of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Ravenna/Italy 2011 on Thursday. Full of belief after finishing runners-up in the South American qualifying competition, La Albiceleste found themselves trailing to a Jalal Al Sinani goal barely one minute into their tournament opener.
Wilting in the Ravenna heat, the young Argentinians would have found themselves in deeper trouble against the rampant Omanis had it not been for the peerless form of their goalkeeper Cesar Mendoza. After making the second of two spectacular stops, the excitable custodian exchanged high-fives with his team-mates and bellowed at them, urging them to up their game.
In the end, Mendoza’s exhortations turned out to be just as decisive as his flying saves, the hard-pressed South Americans reacting in time to carve out a valuable 3-1 win.
A veteran of four FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups, it was nevertheless an unusual feeling for the keeper to be in the thick of the action. An eternal understudy to Marcelo Salgueiro since making his first trip to the world finals at Rio de Janeiro 2005, Mendoza was only promoted to the No1 slot after Dubai 2009.
Yet despite his recent emergence, he is one of the veterans and the leaders of a new-look team, a role he is delighted to accept, as he explained in an interview with FIFA.com. “My job in the team is different now,” said the 28-year-old shotstopper.
“I have to set an example, without making too much fuss about it," he continued. "And after seeing things for so long from a different perspective, as a squad member sitting on the sidelines, I’ve learned what to do and what not to do. And I’m not just talking about technical things but about attitude too.”
I can remember having butterflies in my stomach five or six years ago.
Mendoza’s attitude was clear for all to see during that problematic first period against Oman and at every set-piece, with the keeper barking instructions to his outfield players. In the end, his character and drive proved no less crucial than his performance between the posts.
“We came here on the back of a good showing at the South American qualifiers, where we won four straight games and only lost in the final to Brazil,” he explained. “I didn’t need to play as big a part there because the team was like a machine and got things just right up front and at the back. But here against Oman we left ourselves open because of the heat and the fact we had two players out injured (Cesar Leguizamon, who was sent home as a result of his injury problems, and Miguel de Ezeyza). That meant I had to do my bit.”
As one of the cornerstones of the Argentina line-up, the experienced Mendoza is better qualified than most to discuss the nerves that seemed to afflict his colleagues in the opening minutes of Thursday’s match.
“It’s understandable we were nervous,” he said. “It’s a young team and most of the players were making their World Cup debuts. That’s all part and parcel of it, though, and I can remember having butterflies in my stomach five or six years ago.”
Yet as Mendoza showed on the sands of Ravenna yesterday, there is no better cure for butterflies than focusing on the job in hand and standing tall just when your team needs you.