With less than two weeks to go until the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, excitement levels are at fever pitch. And as the countdown to the Opening Match on 12 June continues to tick by, a host of former stars of the beautiful game are coming forward with their predictions for who will claim football’s premier prize.
For decades Argentina have been one of the major powers in the world game, so it is therefore only fitting that Osvaldo ‘Ossie’ Ardiles, a world champion with Argentina in 1978 and one of the South American nation’s living legends, should have his say. And though never a goalkeeper, Ardiles also remains an iconic wearer of his country’s No1 shirt – having donned said jersey throughout La Albiceleste’s campaign at Spain 1982.
FIFA.com caught up with the former midfielder and experienced manager to talk about his country’s chances at Brazil 2014, Argentina star Lionel Messi and beating the Netherlands to lift the World Cup in Buenos Aires 36 years ago.
Argentina’s illustrious history at the competition dates back to its very first edition in 1930 when they progressed to the Final, only to eventually lose out to hosts and neighbours Uruguay. Absent for the next four editions, La Albiceleste resurfaced at Sweden 1958 and, with the exception of Mexico 1970, they have featured at every finals thereafter.
Yet having come so close in their first outing, the title continued to elude them, and when their country was selected to host the 11th edition of the tournament in 1978, Argentina felt that their chance had come. Head coach Cesar Menotti was a keen believer in the potential of the young Ardiles, fielding him in a crucial linking role on the right of midfield.
“It all happened a long time ago, but I’ll never forget it,” said the former Tottenham Hotspur player and manager with a smile, when asked to look back at that victorious campaign. “We went into the greatest tournament on earth desperate to make the dreams of the Argentinian people come true. We gave everything we had and more on home soil.
“We faced some very good sides, the biggest of which were the Netherlands, of course, who were particularly strong back then,” he went on. “That was a very tough Final, but the title was just reward for our efforts. To this day, everyone in the country is proud of what we achieved. We were the side that set Argentina on course for a great future. I myself am proud of what we did and I hope we can get that sense of pride back in Brazil.”
I’d definitely tip Argentina as potential winners, they’ve got all the odds on their side this time. I think they will face Brazil in a dramatic Final.
Staying on top
The title won, Argentina remained a force on football's greatest stage, making a strong showing at Spain 1982 before reclaiming the Trophy at Mexico 1986. In Italy, four years later, Argentina once again reached the Final, only to lose out narrowly to Germany, though the South American giants have not made it past the quarter-final stage since.
Asked about this relative decline in his country’s fortunes, Ardiles was bullish: “It’s true that we haven’t made it past the quarter-finals for a while, but Argentina are always contenders. I believe that every World Cup is different, but as far as Brazil goes the same holds true: Argentina are one of the sides in with a chance. We have the odds on our side and an excellent team, especially the foursome of Messi, [Gonzalo] Higuain, [Sergio] Aguero and [Angel] Di Maria, all high-quality players who have excelled for club and country.”
“It’s true that I was expecting [Carlos] Tevez to be called up,” he admitted. “He would have brought something different to the squad, but it’s the coach [Alejandro Sabella] who has to decide. And I won’t pretend we don’t have problems in defence, which is why I think it’s excellent that Martin Demichelis has been brought in to give the backline some much-needed experience. I hope we can give a strong, united performance because victory only results from everyone playing together. That is what we have to expect from them.”
As for Argentina’s Group F rivals – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria – he had this to say: “It’s quite a reassuring draw. Unlike some of the other groups, the teams don’t worry me. But like I always say, that doesn’t mean you can treat your opponents lightly and disrespect them, quite the opposite in fact. You can easily get caught out on the big stage, so the players have to stay alert and give their best. I hope they can stay focused on winning and topping the group, because first place is vital if you want to progress right to the latter stages.”
Messi “getting back to his best”
Naturally, the conversation soon turned to Albiceleste No10 Messi, set to appear in his third consecutive World Cup and who will be wearing the captain’s armband on Brazilian soil. And though the Barcelona superstar failed to find the net at South Africa 2010, few expect the prolific forward to draw a blank again.
I believe Messi is already one of the five best players in the history of the game. He’s a very ambitious player and you never know what he might do on the pitch.
“This time, Lionel Messi will give the performance we expect of him, I’m sure of that,” said Ardiles with conviction. “He played excellently in the qualifiers and shouldered his responsibilities brilliantly - he was our main goalscorer and one of the most decisive players on the pitch. Until midway through this past season he was carrying an injury that he picked up at the end of the previous campaign, but I can see he’s gradually getting back to his best. I reckon he is determined to have an amazing tournament, both on an individual and team level.”
Does he feel Messi’s role can be compared with the part Diego Maradona himself played for the Argentina squad? “Messi should never be compared with any other player, that’s a no-no. Every player has their own approach and style and, in my eyes, Messi is truly incomparable. He’s got supernatural skill, a tactical awareness ahead of his time and can make the impossible look easy.
“I believe Messi is already one of the five best players in the history of the game,” underlined Ardiles. “There’s no doubt about that and he doesn’t have to win a World Cup to prove it. It’s been obvious over the last few years and major tournaments. He’s a very ambitious player and you never know what he might do on the pitch.”
Keeping the faith
“I’d definitely tip Argentina as potential winners, they’ve got all the odds on their side this time,” said the 61-year-old, as the interview concluded. “I think they will face Brazil in a dramatic Final. Even so, there are several other teams that could play major roles in the competition, such as holders Spain, Germany, Italy and England."