Argentina ran out winners of the 1995, 1997 and 2001 editions of the FIFA World Youth Championship, and this year's crop of young Albicelestes know only too well they are widely expected to carry off the trophy again at UAE 2003. But there is a certain matter of a quarter-final tie with the United States to deal with first. FIFA.com spoke to coach Hugo Tocalli about the pressures of being favourites, how it affects the team and his ambitions between now and the end of the tournament. He also throws down the gauntlet for another fancied side: "We want a showdown with Brazil."
"I had a word with my lads yesterday to take the pressure off them. They're desperate to get on with it because of Argentina's great history in this category," says Tocalli. "But it's also fantastic that this squad wants to make its own history. We know we have a real challenge ahead of us because it's down to the best teams now, though there have been a few surprises. And, yes, we are aware that we're a tough nut for anyone to crack."
The coach speaks with authority. He has had a direct hand in every Argentinian youth success of recent years and led the junior squad to a third-place spot at the FIFA U-17 World Championship in Finland. That is why he is well qualified to say: "The experience of this type of tournament can help put the finishing touches to a player. We let our nerves get the better of us in one or two games, like against Egypt when we picked up quite a few yellow cards and couldn't get our passing right."
When the Argentinians touched down in the Gulf, Tocalli promptly announced he had three ambitions in the tournament. The first was to qualify for the last 16 by topping Group B. With that mission accomplished, the second is to play the maximum seven games the tournament has to offer: "We're on course, but we have to get past the United States first," he says.
"We caught the North Americans' games against Germany and Côte d'Ivoire. They're a very organised outfit, with two or three really useful forwards. They've got some good central defenders too. But we have to turn our minds to how we're going to beat them. We need possession and composure on the ball," says the coach. Tocalli is also concerned about the number of yellow cards picked up against Egypt: "We lose our cool when things aren't going right for us. Of the six defenders I have in the squad, four are on a yellow card. We just hope nothing goes wrong on Friday and we can make it to the semi-finals."
If they do, Argentina can start to think about the third item on Tocalli's wish list - the title: "There's a long way to go yet," he is quick to say, "but it would be wonderful if we got that far."
If they do get their crucial win over the United States, the Argentinians could face Brazil for a place in the Final. It is the tie both teams are hoping for: "So the Brazilians want a showdown with us, do they? Well, we want a showdown with them too," says a surprisingly defiant Tocalli. However, the coach takes only a second to switch back to his usual measured self: "Be careful though, I want to make it clear we have a job to do on Friday first. And, anyway, if you want to be a champion you have to take on all-comers, and that includes Brazil."
The South American giants have met on three occasions so far this year and each time the Albicelestes have come out on top: in the South American Youth Championship (1-0), the South American U-17 Championship (1-1 and title to Argentina) and the Pan-American Games (1-0). "It's true we're on a winning streak. Let's just hope it lasts until the end of the year!" he laughs.
"Step by step" could be Tocalli's motto, but how is he going to orchestrate the ultimate triumph? "I accept our attitude has been better than our football so far. But we have to keep that positive approach up, it's essential." Attitude may well be essential, but will it be enough? We will have the answer on Friday night.