“Every Goal Was Like A Stab In My Heart”
By Dean Nicholas
It wasn't the worst defeat Argentina have ever suffered – they lost by the same scoreline to Yugoslavia in the 1960s. But the football team's astonishing 1-6 collapse against Bolivia in La Paz was a hugely embarrassing result, and has prompted fresh concern over the team's chances of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.
After a 4-0 win over Venezuela on Saturday, a performance that Diego Maradona described as “perfect,” the coach decided to make some changes. Wary of the altitude – La Paz lies 3,600 metres above sea level – Maradona dropped one of three strikers he deployed on the weekend, and introduced an additional defender. The idea was to play a close, cautious game, conserving energy and relying on the skills of Messi and Tevez to spring Bolivia on the counterattack.
Things started off badly for the visitors, as Bolivia opened aggressively and scored after 11 minutes, but Argentina recovered 22 minutes later when Lucho González converted in unorthodox style, his low, weak shot squirming past the perplexed Bolivian keeper. An Argentine comeback seemed probable; what actually happened next was unprecedented.
Whether the altitude had already left the blue-and-white team punch-drunk or not, Bolivia suddenly found themselves up 3-1 through a Joaquín Botero penalty and a goal by Alex Da Rosa. The hosts were by far the better team, dominating their celebrated opponents with apparent ease and causing delirium in the stands. The expulsion of Argentine winger Angel Di María in the 63rd minute meant that it was soon a case of damage limitation.
Yet Argentina weren't even capable of keeping the scoreline respectable. Two more goals for Botero in the second period, and a fine long-range strike in the 86th minute by Didi Torrico, concluded a nightmare game for the two-time World Cup winners. Maradona could only stand passively on the sidelines as Argentina fell to their first defeat under his tutelage.
Describing each goal as “a stab in my heart” during the post-match press conference, Maradona admirably avoided blaming the altitude and praised Bolivia's positive approach to the game. Yet after three convincing wins since his appointment in October, this result will bring fresh concerns about the coach's ability to take his gifted side to the World Cup finals in South Africa.
Despite their heavy defeat, results elsewhere mean Argentina remain second in the qualification table: leaders Paraguay took just a single point from games against Uruguay and Ecuador, and have collected 24 points from 12 games, with Argentina second on 19 points. However, Chile and Brazil sit below them on 19 and 18 points respectively, having played a game less. Bolivia lie in 9th, one off the bottom. The top four from the South American group qualify automatically, while the team in fifth contest a play-off game against a team from the North / Central American group.
There are still six games to go in the qualification stage, and plenty of time for Maradona to make this match a dark but distant memory. Yet the two-month break before the next competitive match, against Colombia in June, will give those who criticised his appointment plenty to discuss. Given the country's footballing pride, its wealth of talented players and the game's importance to the national psyche, failure to qualify for 2010 is simply not an option, and unless Maradona demonstrates quickly that this April fool was a one-off, even “la mano de Dios” could receive a goodbye handshake from the AFA.
*Dean Nicholas is a writer based in Buenos Aires