Hope amid heartache for Argentina
Argentina's bid for glory at the FIFA World Cup ended in the most excruciating of ways with a penalty shoot-out defeat against the hosts in front an ecstatic 72,000 crowd.
Once the tears of defeat had dried, however, the two-time world champions bade farewell to Germany secure in the knowledge that they had more than made their mark on the tournament.
In stark contrast to the euphoric build-up to Korea/Japan 2002, Argentina followers were cautious to say the least about their team's prospects this time around, particularly in view of the tough group they were drawn in and a potentially tricky route to the final. That all changed following the Albiceleste's regal progress through Group C, including a superlative six-goal demolition of Serbia and Montenegro , which persuaded many fans to set their sights considerably higher.
Their next opponents Mexico proved a much tougher nut to crack than expected and Jose Pekerman's side were indebted to Maxi Rodriguez's magnificent late winner to progress. Just as belief began to infuse the squad, however, their ambitions were cruelly cut short in that agonising shoot-out loss in Berlin .
Nevertheless, the South Americans can have little to reproach themselves for. Undefeated throughout the tournament they scored 11 goals while conceding a mere three, and looked more than capable of repeating the glories achieved in the blistering heat of Mexico 20 years earlier. Until the Germans crossed their path, that is.
In the aftermath of defeat came the inevitable questions. Did Pekerman make a mistake in taking Juan Roman Riquelme off against Germany? Was Esteban Cambiasso the best man to come on in his place? Was Julio Cruz's introduction the right choice for the closing minutes of the game while Lionel Messi remained on the bench? Over the last couple of days many different answers have been given to these questions, but the fact remains that had Argentina prevailed from the spot, they would not have been asked in the first place.
"Unexpected problems can surface in football at any time and that's what happened to us against Germany," said Pekerman after the game, not without good reason. Keeper Roberto Abbondanzieri, an expert penalty-saver, had to go off with an injury in extra time. "That forced us to use one of our substitutions, and with Riquelme getting tired as well we were unable to make the most of our substitutions in extra time, unlike the Mexico match," bemoaned the coach.
Despite their untimely elimination, Argentina have every reason to be excited about the future. The vastly experienced Abbondanzieri and Roberto Ayala are more than willing to lead the new generation to South Africa 2010, one that contains exciting, established talents such as Javier Mascherano, Rodriguez, Javier Saviola, Carlos Tevez and Messi.
"I had the good fortune to lead a team of superb footballers who were committed to the cause and believed in what we were doing," said Pekerman. "Argentina has every right to be optimistic about the future, though. We have a wonderful generation of players now and I have no doubt we will right up there in major competitions in the years to come."
Despite tendering his resignation, Pekerman may yet be persuaded to continue. Should he do so, South Africa 2010 would provide him with the perfect opportunity to bring all that promise to glorious fruition.