The history of the Argentinian national team is dotted with legendary goalscorers. These include Guillermo Stabile, top scorer at the first ever FIFA World Cup™ in 1930, Mario Kempes, the hero of the host nation’s triumph in 1978, and more recent idols such as Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo.
Yet since Batigol hung up his shooting boots and Valdanito drifted out of the national team picture, La Albiceleste have struggled to find a genuine No9. Indeed, though many have tried, to date nobody has shown the kind of predatory instincts that helped Crespo and Batistuta, Argentina’s leading FIFA World Cup qualifying and finals scorers respectively, to a combined 91 goals in the famous sky blue-and-white shirt.
In the South American Zone qualifiers for South Africa 2010, Argentina struck just 23 times which, along with their France 1998 qualifying campaign, was their joint lowest tally since the current preliminary format was introduced. And though in France 1998 qualifying Argentina were the second-most prolific side, the class of 2010 were only the joint fifth highest scorers of the ten CONMEBOL teams, with La Albiceleste’s leading marksmen Sergio Aguero and Juan Roman Riquelme registering just four goals apiece.
With just five months to go until Diego Maradona’s charges take the field against Group B opponents Nigeria in Johannesburg, it is still far from certain who will lead the line. Having been ignored for over two years, despite doing the business at the sharp end of the Real Madrid attack, Gonzalo Higuain started Argentina’s final three games of 2009 and scored on his debut against Peru. “It would be incredible to be at the World Cup alongside the finest strikers in the world,” said a player who is once again among the forerunners for La Liga’s Pichichi award.
However, the Merengue front-man, who resisted the overtures of the French national side to turn out for La Albiceleste, has not cemented a starting berth just yet. Among his potential rivals is the evergreen Boca Juniors icon Martin Palermo, scorer of 212 goals in the Xeneize shirt as well as the vital last-gasp winner against Peru which kept his country’s South Africa 2010 hopes alive.
“At the interval I told him to go out and win the game, though we never imagined it would happen like this. It was yet another miracle by Saint Palermo,” said coach Maradona after the Peru game and, though time is against the 36 year old, El Loco appears to have won back the affections of Argentina fans since missing three penalties in one match against Colombia at the Copa America 1999.
Two contenders who have lost ground during Maradona’s reign are the aforementioned Aguero and Carlos Tevez. Though El Kun Aguero ended the campaign as Argentina’s top scorer and is the father of El Pelusa’s only grandchild, he was cast aside for the final decisive qualifiers. El Apache, for his part, dropped out of favour with El Diez after two red cards and some lacklustre qualifying displays. “My time has passed, I’m fully aware of that,” said Tevez not two months ago, though eight goals in December for Manchester City mean he may have spoke too soon.
Also pushing strongly to be considered is Lucas Barrios, the world’s top league goalscorer in 2008 while at Chilean outfit Colo Colo. And having already hit 13 Bundesliga goals since his summer switch to Borussia Dortmund, a continuation of that purple patch would make his claim hard to ignore.
Former glories eyeing return
Going back to Germany 2006, Argentina’s first-choice strike pairing of Javier Saviola and Crespo both scored in a 2-1 opening-game win over Côte d’Ivoire before playing a full part in the subsequent 6-0 thrashing of Serbia and Montenegro. Four years on and both players are determined to make a return to world football’s top table.
El Conejito Saviola has thrived since signing for Portuguese giants Benfica, where he has caught Maradona’s eye thanks to seven goals in 14 league starts and a four-goal haul in the group phase of the UEFA Europa League. “I think Javier’s great, Benfica is the ideal club for him. He’s a player who could easily be called up and one we’re following closely,” said the Argentina supremo.
Crespo, meanwhile, who signed for Genoa from Inter Milan in the summer in a bid for more regular first-team football, is putting his faith in his physical presence and trademark hunger for goals. “At the moment the players in the national squad are quite different to me, there’s a lot of small lads,” said the former River Plate, Parma, Lazio, Chelsea and AC Milan front-runner.
“I think that I can bring something different to the team. I dream of playing at the World Cup, my age is not an obstacle.” However, given the sheer abundance of attacking talent at his disposal, will Maradona heed his pleas?