Even if it failed to lift its first trophy in 14 years, Argentina showed signs of why it should still be considered a serious candidate to fight for the 2010 World Cup.
When Brazil ended Argentina's hopes of winning its first Copa América since 1993 last Sunday, several thoughts went through my head. Argentina always seems to be the best team whenever it participates in a competition, but for some reason falls to pieces when it really counts.
Some recent examples of this immediately came to mind. Last year Argentina looked set to reach the semifinals of the World Cup after proving to be much superior to host Germany, but ended up surrendering its lead, and losing on penalties.
The year before that Argentina came into the final of the Confederations Cup as the overwhelming favorite, but rather surprisingly went on to lose 4-1 against Brazil in a very disappointing display. In the 2004 Copa América, also against Brazil, Argentina was just seconds away from clinching the title, but conceded a late Adriano equalizer, and went on to lose on penalties.
And then this year, Argentina came into its clash with Brazil in sensational form, but lost 3-0. What made this defeat all the more painful was that the Argentines were outplayed by an inexperienced Brazilian side missing several of its superstars -- imagine what the score would have looked like if Ronaldinho, Kaká, Ronaldo, and Adriano were all playing.
So it's understandable why Argentina's latest setback was so difficult to digest. Despite the talent in its squad Argentina failed to live up to the expectations once again. After its impressive 4-2 victory over Colombia in the first round I said: "At times it's difficult to understand how so many superstars can blend into the same team at once, and still achieve excellent results." I guess this didn't apply in the final, but honestly how in the world can a team with that amount of attacking power not find the back of the net at least once in 90 minutes?
Argentina's overall performance in the competition can't only be judged by what it did in the final, although it's surely the match that most sticks to mind. The Argentines, who didn't know what it felt like to be threatened, did extremely well in their other five matches -- winning all of them. They played some very attractive soccer, and most of their players were able to showcase their skill. Argentina was able to overcome most of its opponents by huge margins, leading the competition with 16 goals. Another thing it should be happy with is that Juan Sebastián Verón and Juan Román Riquelme were able to rediscover their form with the national team.
But what's next? Alfio Basile wasn't blamed for the defeat against Brazil, and will remain at the helm looking ahead to the 2010 World Cup qualifiers that kick off later this year. Even though Basile expected to win the Copa América, he clearly identified his main objective as getting his team playing an effective style of soccer that would work as preparation for Argentina's qualifying campaign. Like most managers in Venezuela, including Brazil's Carlos Dunga, Mexico's Hugo Sánchez, and Uruguay's Oscar Washington Tabárez, Basile saw the tournament as valuable experience to evaluate players in a competitive environment before the qualifiers.
Basile, who was pleased with Argentina's overall campaign, has already affirmed that Argentina will maintain the same system utilized at the Copa América, but will adjust certain things, due to the retirement of some key players from the squad. Roberto Ayala, who captained the side in Venezuela, has already called it quits, while Verón, Riquelme, Javier Zanetti, Roberto Abbondanzieri, and Hernán Crespo could be next to follow. But with the rise of several promising players plying their trade in Argentina's local competition, Basile doesn't have anything to worry about, and will certainly be content about injecting more youth into future sides.
On the same evening when Argentina was defeated in the final of the Copa América, Argentina's youth side booked a ticket to the semifinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada after edging Mexico 1-0. The young Argentines have been the most consistent team in the tournament, after recording four wins and one draw from five matches, with an impressive 11-1 scoring record.
On Thursday, Argentina will face off with regional rival Chile in the semifinals of the competition, and will look to advance to its second consecutive final, where it could either meet Austria or the Czech Republic.
Unlike Argentina's senior national team, the youth team has experienced huge success in recent years, winning four of the last six world titles since 1995. Over the last few years several of Argentina's finest players have emerged through the youth ranks, including Javier Saviola, Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tévez, and Lionel Messi.
Argentina's new generation is as strong as ever, and includes exciting players like Sergio Agüero, Emiliano Insúa, Maximiliano Moralez, Ever Banega, and Mauro Zárate. These players are destined to have bright futures with the senior national team in the years to come.