Can a South American team put an end to European hegemony this time in Qatar? Argentina’s surprise loss to Saudi Arabia may have dampened that possibility a bit.
Juan Arango is one of the best-known voices in South American football and is currently a football pundit for Al Jazeera during the 2022 World Cup. In a special interview with TimesofIndia.com, Arango spoke about a crowd questions related to the World Cup, the favourites, the less favourites, the dark horses and, of course, Argentina and Brazil.
Arango spoke to TimesofIndia.com before the start of the 2022 edition of the World Cup.
So how do you see the World Cup going for South American teams?
Juan Arango: Argentina and Brazil are still the favourites. These teams are mentioned whenever you talk about who can win the World Cup. They are always in conversation.
Will they win it? We do not know. Brazil haven’t won in the last 20 years and Argentina haven’t won in the last 36 years, but they’re still in the conversation.
In recent World Cup cycles, one team that has been able to penetrate deep into the tournament is Uruguay. They have managed to come out of the group stage in every World Cup cycle and finished fifth in 2018.
But, this World Cup is going to be very interesting. Looks like the end of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, maybe Diego Godin and Fernando Muslera, the stars of 2010.
This World Cup ends up being a passing of the torch for them. But that still means you have to compete. They need to dive deep into the World Cup to be successful and they also have a great chance of making it out of the group stage.
Ecuador is another story with one of the youngest teams in this World Cup. And I think they have an average age of about 25.4. If not the youngest, one of the youngest in this edition of the World Cup.
It’s an interesting situation the way things are set up. Ecuador may end up being knocked out of the group stages or end up in the quarter-finals. So it’s a strange dynamic.
How strong is the Ecuador team?
Juan Arango: Ecuador are a relatively strong team. He is not very experienced in certain positions. The experience they gained during the World Cup qualifiers in South America was even more valuable to them.
If you keep in mind, we are talking about a national team that two years ago had little chance of qualifying.
Don’t forget that Jordi Cruyff, the coach at the time, resigned seven months later after taking over in February 2020. The pandemic had a lot to do with it.
The Ecuadorian federation hired Gustavo Alfaro and he ended up becoming the coach of the national team. He brought in younger players.
Many young players like Moises Caicedo came from Independiente del Valle, one of the Ecuadorian clubs. The Ecuadorian football federation does not have huge funds like its South American counterparts. But, they have been competitive, especially among the younger players. They won the Libertadores at U-20 level.
They have been very competitive in South American football.
What other changes did Alfaro make?
Juan Arango: He brought a different mentality. He asked for more competitiveness. He sought to bring in younger players. Players ended up playing the games that gave them experience.
It is a dynamic group. You have players like Piero Hincapié who had a good run at Bayer Leverkusen. Another player, Xavier Arreaga who plays defense for the Seattle Sounders, has great potential to go to Europe.
Their philosophy offers more pressure, more security. But, there are plenty of dynamic players behind the scenes and a player in the middle who can pull the strings.
Are Argentina really favourites?
Juan Arango: Are they really your favorites? Yes. Are they really the favourites? Probably not. We can also say that Argentina are undefeated in their last 35 matches. They haven’t lost in three and a half years.
They have a set philosophy and, for the most part, they have muscle memory in terms of what they have to do with the ball, where their teammates are and where they need to be in reference to that. They understand the philosophy they play with and have a strong and galvanized team. And to some extent, I think they don’t have much to lose, as crazy as that sounds.
What about Messi’s last World Cup?
Juan Arango: You also have other players for whom this will be their last World Cup. You have other teams like Brazil and France who are also strong and can be stronger in other positions.
I mean Argentines are realistic. Is there euphoria behind the Argentina national team? Yes. So, do the Argentines want the national team to win? Of course they do. But they understand that Brazil is no joke
Look at the whole Brazil call-up, they’re a solid team, just like teams like France.
Christopher Nkunku from France ends up getting injured and they bring in someone else. You see players arriving from the French side and are on the same level of talent as the first team.
France can probably field three teams for the World Cup…
Juan Arango: Yes, and it is possible that they still won’t win it. When you see a motivated Messi, the way he is motivated. When you see the teammates around him motivated to succeed. It’s not ‘hey, we want to win it for him, we also want to win it too.’
Three and a half years ago, after the World Cup in Russia, there was a lot of uncertainty about the direction the national team was taking. Messi was getting older and the new coach only had experience at Under-20 level. So there were question marks as to why bringing him here.
But, you can see now in terms of man management, philosophy, establishing a way of working, not only with the senior teams, but also bringing in former players who can work at different levels of age. Diego Placenta is the U-15 coach, Pablo Aimar is the Under-17 coach. Javier Mascherano, U-20 coach and you also have Walter Samuel.
And Brazil? Are you surprised at the team selection? Did the team tone down the flair?
Juan Arango: Brazil has toned down flair over the past 32 years. Jogo Bonito football has not existed since the 1990 World Cup.
So when we see the squad list for Brazil, the name some underdogs may question Flamengo’s Pedro ends up being called.
He played briefly at Fiorentina and returned to Flamengo. In most games he is used as a super sub and there he touches the ball and he ends up in the back of the net.
He became such a talismanic goalscorer that he ended up knocking out Gabriel, a stalwart of the Brazilian national team.
What other teams to watch?
Juan Arango: I love Senegal.
Less Sadio Mané?
Juan Arango: Look at the national team of Senegal and tell me if it is an inferior team. Yes, not as strong minus Mane, but not so weak either.
Watch Senegal’s Africa Cup starting line-up and qualifying squad against Egypt. Isn’t the team as competitive as any of the other teams?
Juan Arango: If things start rolling, maybe Germany and Spain. You can never go wrong with teams that have been consistent for years.
Will it probably be an open World Cup?
Juan Arango: Yes of course it can be opened. But at the end of the day, when you start entering the neighborhoods, they are the usual suspects. Except for one or two who usually come in and are able to make their way through.