On 11 February this year, Diego Maradona's rejuvenated Argentina side pulled off an outstanding achievement in beating 1998 world champions France in their own back yard. Indeed, such was the manner of Les Bleus' 2-0 defeat that the fans in Marseille ended the match cheering every South American touch, much to the bemusement of French coach Raymond Domenech and his players.
Two of the main men earning that ovation could be found on the Albiceleste's left flank that evening: Emiliano Papa and Jonas Gutierrez. Though the duo are far from household names as yet, they are quickly becoming key components of Maradona's Argentina set-up. And with South American Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ set to get underway once more in late March, FIFA.com brings you a closer look at the two rising stars.
Quite different characters on and off the pitch, the players' backgrounds do share certain similarities. For example, they are both in their mid-20s - Gutierrez 25, Papa 26 - both came to footballing prominence at Velez Sarsfield, and both are equally keen on keeping their places in the Argentina squad ahead of South Africa 2010.
"Of the players (I have available), I could mention Papa's name. I like how he plays and he's one of the best in the domestic arena in a position not too many people occupy," said Maradona on the day of his unveiling as national team coach, an announcement that shocked many given that the diminutive defender, a product of the Rosario Central youth system, had never appeared for Argentina at youth level.
What can you say about Maradona? To have him nearby and get instructions from
him always motivates you that bit more.
Boasting over 200 appearances and nine goals to date in Argentinian football, the gifted left-back was duly given his Albiceleste debut in the 1-0 friendly win over Scotland on 19 November 2008. "That was like a dream," said the publicity-shy newcomer. "Perhaps I wasn't very familiar to a lot of people but I hit a good run of form at the time there was a change in national team coach, and that worked in my favour."
Gutierrez's case is somewhat different. The player nicknamed El Galgo (The Greyhound), thanks to his leggy running style, made his name at Papa's current club Velez, but had already pulled on the blue-and-white shirt at junior level. However, it was not until his time at Liga outfit Mallorca that he made his senior debut in early 2007 under then coach Alfio Basile. The opponents that day were France, the same team against which the Newcastle United winger scored his first national-team goal two years and six international appearances later.
"It's always a dream to be called up to the national team," says Gutierrez. "And what can you say about Maradona? Everything that's happening to me is unbelievable. To have him (Maradona) nearby and get instructions from him always motivates you that bit more. I'm very pleased to have scored, and even more happy we won. Let's hope all this continues."
The pair's differing personalities have proved no obstacle to their gelling out on the field, with the introverted Papa and the outgoing Gutierrez quickly reaching a high level of mutual understanding. The full-back's ability to bring the ball out of defence and quality distribution dovetail well with the wide-man's tireless running and direct attacking approach, all vital ingredients if Argentina are to overcome Venezuela and Bolivia in their next two qualifiers.
"It's still a bit early to talk about those games, I'm just hoping to be called up. That's enough for me," said the ever-cautious Papa after the France friendly.
Gutierrez, meanwhile, who can look back on a fine display in last year's 0-0 qualifying draw with Brazil, went a bit further: "They'll be tough opponents because it (the South American Zone) is very evenly matched. Nowadays nobody wins by virtue of the shirt they're wearing, but we do have some great players. On a personal note, I'm dreaming of a call up and then I'll see if I can start again."
Yet if the pair continue to perform as they did in Marseille, then their places in the squad, and their claims for a seat on the plane to South Africa, will be less of a dream and more like reality.