Goalkeeper: Argentina's never-ending story
Ever since Sergio Goycochea surrendered his grip on Argentina's coveted goalkeeper's jersey in 1994, there has been no shortage of candidates seeking to fill his shoes. To date though, nobody has been able to win the unconditional support of the demanding Albiceleste faithful, and claim the No.1 spot as their own. For now, it looks as though manager Marcelo Bielsa is set to stand by the unpopular Pablo Cavallero, in spite of loud calls from sections of the fans for the inclusion of their own favourites. Argentina's Achilles heel: their goalkeepers.
"It was only when I sat down and talked with Ubaldo Filliol that I realised he knew next to nothing about goalkeeping."
This brutally honest assessment came from none other than Bielsa himself. The legendary keeper of the 1978 FIFA World Cup-winning side had been the national team's goalkeeping coach until he left to become manager of Avellaneda's Racing Club. Filliol's departure coincided with a period of uncertainty and controversy surrounding the question of Argentina's most dependable keeper.
Bielsa's first choice, Pablo Cavallero, has failed to win over the press or the public after a series of inconsistent performances that date back to his side's disastrous 2002 FIFA World Cup campaign in Korea/Japan. The days when Cavallero's Celta Vigo had the meanest defence in the Spanish league are now just a distant memory. "Every player has their highs and lows during the season. I just try and keep producing good performances every time I have the honour of representing my country," said Cavallero.
Meanwhile back in Buenos Aires, press and fans alike are calling for change. Roberto Abbondanzieri, Juan Carlos Olave and Carlos Navarro Montoya are the names that come up time and time again as candidates for one of the most thankless jobs in football.
Abbondanzieri, the people's choice
In a reader's poll conducted by the Clarín newspaper, 46% of the 15,000 voters wanted to see Abbondanzieri between the posts for the national team. The 31-year old has won the respect of his countrymen after years of service at Boca Juniors, where his contribution to the team's long running success has been incalculable. El Pato as he is called locally, is known as a hard-working, serious professional. Calls for his selection for Argentina reached a crescendo last year when he inspired his team to a penalty shoot-out win against AC Milan in the Copa Intercontinental, having earlier helped Boca to another Copa Libertadores triumph. His most prized attribute is his ability to remain focused and alert during quiet periods of the game and pull off great saves when suddenly called upon.
Abbondanzieri, who ironically was second choice keeper to Pablo Cavallero when first brought into the Argentine squad by Daniel Passarella in 1996, said, "I haven't given up hope of a recall. I just know that if I continue to perform at the top of my game, then my chance will come. I know 2006 is a long way off but I'll be available. I would really love to be there."
"Bielsa, Olave is Argentinian" proclaims the flag hanging at Gimnasia y Esgrima's ground where the 28-year old is club captain. The long-haired Cordoban is known for his spectacular saves and enjoys the added popularity of being the brother of the late folk singer Rodrigo - a national hero in Argentina, who tragically died in 2000.
"Of course I would love to be called up, but you have to respect Cavallero who has been doing the job for a few years now and also plays in Europe," said the modest Olave, who delivered newspapers for a living until he was 23.
Navarro Montoya's never-ending struggle
Just like good wine, some goalkeepers seem to get better with age. There's no better example than Carlos Fernando Navarro Montoya. The 38-year old is still considered one of the top keepers in the Argentine league where he played for the last 20 years. A native of Medellín, Colombia, Navarro Montoya spent years honing his craft before he was finally considered to be Albiceleste material. Now playing for Avellaneda side, Independiente, the veteran is still hopeful of a recall.
"Representing Argentina is the only dream that I have yet to fulfil. I will never give up hope," said the ever-popular Navarro Montoya. Unfortunately for Montoya and the others, Marcelo Bielsa is not a man known to bow to public opinion. For now he is set to stick with his existing keepers: Cavallero, Leo Franco (Mallorca, Spain) and Franco Costanzo (River Plate).
The degree of criticism that they will come in for - and the rest of the team for that matter - depends largely on the results the side get in their upcoming games. Until then, those in the wings will just have to sit tight and wait.