Argentina scored one of the most famous goals in the country’s history 11-years-ago, but the 2006 World Cup was an opportunity missed for the Albiceleste
When Gabriel Heinze nicked the ball from Mateja Kezman 30 yards from his own goal, no one in Gelsenkirchen, watching on television or in a Serbia and Montenegro shirt could have known that less than one minute and 25 passes later, Argentina would score a goal of such beauty that it will forever be etched in World Cup history.
The menacing grace with which Jose Pekerman’s side stroked the ball around the pitch was no flash in the pan; it was molded in a golden era of youth football but one which would ultimately fall short in reaching its full potential.
One need only look at the team sheet on that day in 2006 when Argentina so ruthlessly dismantled Serbia and Montenegro to witness the fruit of Pekerman’s work as under-20 coach. Captain Juan Pablo Sorin, Maxi Rodriguez, Juan Roman Riquelme, Javier Saviola and Esteban Cambiasso were all involved in the flowing passing move and all lifted the under-20 World Cup during Pekerman’s age of dominance.
The arrival of the unheralded coach in 1994 may not come have with the fanfare of a more established name but Pekerman’s impact was immediate. Sorin led Los Pibes to a world title the following year in Qatar and over the next decade, Argentina would lift four of the six subsequent under-20 World Cups.
This conveyor belt of talent has been fueling the senior side ever since but in 2004 when Marcelo Bielsa quit as Argentina coach, El Profe’s success was impossible to ignore and Pekerman was promoted.
Aside from a deep understanding of the players available, Pekerman brought with him an already entrenched possession-based philosophy. All of his graduates were well-schooled in the art of keeping the ball and finding spaces and with the wizardry of Juan Roman Riquelme as the side’s fulcrum, all the pieces were falling into place ahead of the World Cup in Germany.
Argentina had begun their campaign with a 2-1 win over Ivory Coast and up next were a Serbia and Montenegro side, who Bielsa’s Albiceleste had defeated 6-0 at the Olympics two years earlier.
The gold medallists had the confidence of a team considered among the favourites to lift the famous trophy and for good reason: Roberto Ayala and Juan Pablo Sorin marshaling the defence, Javier Mascherano and Esteban Cambiasso providing protection, Juan Roman Riquelme pulling the strings, Hernan Crespo and Javier Saviola in attack and a young Lionel Messi as a handy option off the bench.
This was an Argentina side with the look and style of champions; against Serbia and Montenegro even the doubters began to believe.
Maxi Rodriguez had already fired Argentina ahead in the sixth minute after delightful interplay with Saviola down the left when Pekerman’s boys created their masterpiece.
Rodriguez chasing back to hound Kezman into the path of Heinze set in motion a breathtaking passage of play that swept back and forth across the turf, taking in every Argentina player except goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri and right-back Nicolas Burdisso.
Rodriguez, Sorin, Mascherano, Riquelme, Ayala, Cambiasso – precise but patient build-up, until Saviola drifted to the left and suddenly the tempo quickened. A quick one-two with Riquelme, a pass in-field to Cambiasso, a touch into the path of Crespo, a backheeled return ball and finally an emphatic finish past Dragoslav Jevric.
Rodriguez, Crespo, Tevez and a first World Cup goal for Messi would complete the rout but sadly for Pekerman’s Argentina, the Cambiasso-finished second would prove to be their pinnacle.
A staggering extra-time Maxi Rodriguez golazo edged past Mexico in the last 16 only for hosts Germany to leave the Argentine dream in tatters at the quarter-final stage.
Pekerman’s decision to replace the supposedly work shy Riquelme with Cambiasso when leading one-nil led to La Albicelete losing grip in midfield. Miroslav Klose equalised ten minutes from time and misses by Ayala and Cambiasso from the penalty spot condemned Argentina to defeat.
Few substitutions have produced a greater feeling of what-might-have-been?
Pekerman resigned in the aftermath and it signaled the end of a chapter in Argentine football. El Profe may not have been able to achieve the success that his work and his talented protégés warranted but the legacy of his outstanding youth sides has lived on long after his departure and the goal against Serbia and Montenegro remains a lasting gift to the world.