There’s a custom in the River Plate region of Argentina: on your 18th birthday, you write your wish on a paper plane, go to highest point of a building from the neighbourhood, and sacrifice it to the wind. If the plane sails beyond sight, your wish will be carried out.
In the late seconds of the 13th minute, the ball left Ever Banega’s boot from behind the half-way line and found its wish granted by the weaker right foot of Lionel Messi. The air was thick was static and sound, and hair stood in acknowledgement of history being made. But before the lightning of inspiration struck the left thigh of Leo Messi vs Nigeria, there was a pause. Like the moment before a sniper slows down his breathing, and pulls the trigger between his heartbeat. Ever Banega did not exhale till the projectile had struck a blow.
As the ball floated in towards him, Lionel Messi saw a pass that was played to him on countless occasions to him by Xavi Hernandez in Barcelona. The cushioning with the left knee, the mid-air knock on with his left toe, the shuffle, the pause and the shot was all muscle memory from years of practice with some of the best players in the world.
La Pausa (the pause) is integral in the genetic makeup of Argentinian football and folklore. Argentine literature has poetry and prose dedicated to it: the adventures of la gaucho (the cowboy/herder), a key cultural reference point for the Argentinian spirit of reckless abandon and responsibility, almost always had the moment of la pausa to accentuate the climax of a story. This has seeped into the way Argentina play quite naturally as it’s a football culture made up of climaxes that defines a tournament or a game. Like Antonio Rattin’s sending off versus England, Maradona’s 'Hand of God' or Simeone’s conning of David Beckham.
Against Croatia and Iceland, la pausa took a siesta. Against Iceland, the play was threaded through the wings — Argentina were trying to hack away at an icewall of the the Icelandic defence with a soup ladle. Against Croatia, Argentina were a blur of limbs and forced through-balls through the middle.
What changed? The introduction of Ever Banega into the starting line-up as la enganche (the hook) flipped the light switch in the back of Argentinian minds. Against Nigeria, Ever Banega, for a brief moment, mirrored the grainy highlight reels of Osvaldo Ardiles, Ricardo Bochini, Juan Sebastián Veron, Juan Roman Riquelme, even Diego Maradona — all of whom were blessed with the ability to observe their points of view and philosophise a pass onto a platter.
The inclusion of Banega’s aura calmed Argentina’s tempo into order: individual expression on the ball was seen more often by the likes of Enzo Perez, Messi, and Di Maria. While Otamendi and Tagliafico had the assuredness to step out of defence without the fear of the ball being lost during an attacking phase. In the first half of their third match into the 2018 World Cup, Argentina finally looked like a team.
The players kept their head up, delayed the pass just enough to play the right pass instead of the easier one. Too many times in the last two games, an Argentine passer chose to play the easier pass which absolved himself of the responsibility. The one whom the ball was played to had to pass the ball backwards or worse, was harried off the ball. Croatia and Iceland padded up on their interception stats against Argentina and took full-advantage of their narrow alley (callejón oscuro) approach by hitting them on counters.
In Argentinian football, the enganche is symbolic not only as the setter of tempo, but also the endower of identity: So much of the Argentine style is intrinsically about the perfectly-weighted through-ball, the pause, that without it, the dribbles and the veiled mischief seem directionless and wasteful. The difference was accentuated by Messi’s overall performance — his average position to the goal was 15-yards closer if compared to the game against Croatia — and those yards made all the difference. A 33rd-minute Messi free-kick was almost curled into the bottom right corner, and he had enough energy for a sliding tackle on the right wing at the 90+1 minute of added time.
While Nigeria’s penalty in the 51st minute made Argentina nervy and lose the ball more often in the second-half, they did not lose their gameplan. Rojo’s dramatic winner at the 86th minute was more of an inevitability than it looked.
"Once you lose your style, it’s like giving up your soul. You can play well in any style, but you can only play well in the Argentinian way with one style: la nuestra," River Plate legend Beto said once. If Argentina are to somehow get the better of a precociously talented French team on Saturday, Banega must be allowed to play and assert himself. Only then will Argentina find la nuestra (our way) — a style that lies somewhere in between English directness, Uruguayan Garra Charua (bravery and cunning in the face of overwhelming odds) and Brazilian inventiveness.
Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 13:16 PM