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Argentina's problems look familiar

From the outside looking in, most don't appreciate how hard it is to qualify for the World Cup from the South American region.

A key date is 1996, when the current format was introduced. Previously, the continent's 10 nations had been divided into two or three groups. It was a short process -- and since the continent's regional tournament, the Copa América, has no need for qualification, it meant that in between the few competitive games, there were gaps of years.

Thirteen years ago, for the '98 World Cup qualifiers, the nations were put in one big group, all playing each other home and away in a marathon that finally put the South Americans on par with the European national teams. With those changes came a calendar of regular competitive matches and thus the opportunity to hire and retain a good coach, to keep a team together and grow in terms of confidence and tactical sophistication.

The consequence of this change on the fortunes of the traditionally lesser nations has been quite remarkable. Ecuador, once merely making up the numbers, is now a serious force. Venezuela is now taken seriously for the first time.

Unlike Europe, in South America's World Cup qualifiers, nowadays there isn't a single away game in which the road side can take the field certain it'll emerge with the three points. The degree of difficulty is far greater than before -- which means that when a big side gets itself in trouble, it's no easy task to haul itself out of the mud.

Argentina's struggle to make next summer's World Cup has a number of points in common with Brazil's nerve-racking campaign to qualify for Japan and South Korea in 2002. A glance at the two teams' away records makes it clear: Argentina has lost its last four games, including all three under Diego Maradona. Of its eight away games, the only win came in the first, against Venezuela. Brazil's road performances eight years ago make similarly horrific reading. The Seleção won a single game in nine away matches, losing the last four and six of the last seven as the pressure kept cranking up.

In countries of such footballing tradition, every defeat, each substandard display sets off a mini-crisis. At these times, having so many players to choose from can be a curse. A team can be undermined by its own strength in depth, as the call goes out for changes and more changes. The names on the team sheet keep getting swapped around and the team is never formed.

In the 18 games of that '02 campaign, Brazil used a total of 62 players -- and there were moments when the desperation was such that it would have liked to send all 62 out onto the field at the same time.

Eight years later, Brazil has cruised to a place in South Africa. Coach Dunga booked the place in next year's World Cup after 15 of the 18 rounds, having used just 34 players. Contrast that with Maradona, who has been in charge for only six rounds but has already used 31 players, including three goalkeepers, with more changes to come. And Maradona seems to be hurtling into the same trap that Brazil fell into eight years ago: excessive nationalism.

It's often forgotten that, for Brazil and Argentina, it's a comparatively recent development to call up players for the national team who are based abroad. Argentina made an exception in 1978 for Mario Kempes, who was playing for Valencia in Spain. Brazil made an early and unsuccessful attempt to re-integrate the Italian-based Amarildo in '66. But it wasn't until Zico and Maradona moved abroad in the 1980s that bringing players back across the Atlantic started to become common practice.

In such proud footballing cultures, it's still not easy to become accustomed to the fact that almost all the best players are making their livings in Europe. A self-defense mechanism, which comes to the surface in troubled times, is the view that the foreign-based legion are a bunch of mercenaries. They have turned their backs on their native culture in search of money. They aren't really interested in playing for the national team; it's the locally based players who will sweat blood for the cause.

It's a pile of nonsense -- though perhaps it would be too much to expect coherence from nationalist deliriums. South America's foreign-based stars make sacrifices to play for their national teams that many Europeans wouldn't dream of doing. They travel huge distances, at times even upgrading their plane ticket out of their own pockets, all the while aware that they run the risk of being booed if results are unkind.

The home-based players, meanwhile, have, in many cases, returned from Europe after an unsuccessful spell -- or, if they're on the way up, are waiting for an opportunity to go. Earlier this year, Brazilian sports daily Lance! was trying to get a campaign going to have more home-based players on the national team. One of the names mentioned was Ramires, a quick and dynamic midfielder with Cruzeiro. On the day Ramires received his first call up to the senior squad, he signed for Benfica in Portugal. So what happens then? Yesterday he was championed, but today he has become a mercenary and should now be dropped?

There are exceptions to the rule, but in general, the best players will be drawn to Europe. This, after all, is professional sports, and its practitioners will follow the money. But in the grip of nationalism, such basic facts can sometimes be forgotten.

I recall Émerson Leão's reign in charge of Brazil in the darkest hours of the '02 qualifiers. His side lost 1-0 away to Ecuador. Time would prove that neither the result nor the performance was motive for shame -- but that's not the way it was seen at the time. The panic button was pushed. On his return to Brazil, Leão announced he would be making changes aimed at improving the attitude of the national team. Out went the European-based stars. In came the local brigade.

I found myself shaking my head in the press conference thinking that Leão had just blown his job. But the reaction of the local journalists was overwhelmingly positive, and so was that of the public -- right up until the moment when Leão's new team starting playing in São Paulo against Peru. It came up with 90 minutes of soccer no one could applaud. A Peru side lacking form and confidence came away with a comfortable 1-1 draw -- and the next time Brazil took the field for a World Cup qualifier, Luiz Felipe Scolari was picking the team.

Maradona is in danger of making a similar mistake. This week, his team of entirely home-based players will take on Ghana in a friendly in what could well be a distraction from the task of sorting out his side for the coming World Cup qualifiers against Peru and Uruguay. His team for those games could include even more players based in Argentina.

He already has defied logic in the last two rounds by selecting Sebastián Domínguez of Vélez Sarsfield, a sluggish center back who looked out of his depth playing in Brazilian soccer a few years ago. In the last match against Paraguay, he threw on the likes of Martín Palermo and Rolando Schiavi, honest journeymen professionals closer to 40 than 30. It came across as the desperation of a coach who had lost his way.

Brazil's experience in '02 shows that things get much easier once the finish line is crossed. The pressure of the qualification campaign is removed, and having to name a World Cup squad of 23 concentrates the mind and cuts back on the temptation to make endless changes. After struggling mightily to book its place, Brazil went on to win the World Cup. Argentina could do something similar. But first, of course, it has to qualify.

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