Argentina’s woes at the World Cup and the subsequent fruitless quest to find a replacement for Jorge Sampaoli notwithstanding, this is a fine age for the nation’s coaches. Led by the likes of Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone, some of Europe’s biggest clubs boast an Argentine on the bench, with the generation that grew up in the national teams of the 1990s particularly active at the highest levels.
Simeone’s Atlético Madrid have punched far above their weight since the pugnacious former midfielder returned to the club where he starred as a player. El Cholo managed to break Barcelona and Real Madrid’s duopoly on the La Liga title in Spain with Atleti’s win in 2013-14, while he and the club have suffered the pain of falling in the Champions League final twice since taking over, a monumental achievement even if the big prize ultimately eluded the Colchoneros.
Over in north London, meanwhile, Pochettino has done similar sterling work in converting Tottenham’s one of England’s traditional ‘bridesmaid’ clubs, into real contenders. The native of Murphy, Santa Fe has yet to be rewarded with a major trophy, but consistent entry into the Champions League and a series of close title calls nevertheless represent a huge improvement for Spurs, who also provided the backbone of England’s World Cup semi-finalist team thanks to Pochettino’s commitment to blooding young stars of the future in his line-ups.
Out of the top European footballing nations, however, just one Argentine claims the honour of heading into the New Year top of his division.
For years Marcelo Bielsa has been derided, mocked, criticised for his eccentricities and supposed dogmatic approach to the game that makes winning impossible; but there he sits with Leeds United, top of the Championship after a gripping start to his tenure in England’s second tier.
Those wonderful curiosities that make Bielsa one of football’s most engaging personalities are still there, of course. The former Newell’s Old Boys, Argentina and Vélez coach speaks almost no English, and has a personal interpreter to guide him through press conferences and interviews. But the man he chose to work alongside him is no ordinary translator: Salim Lamrani is a Sorbonne-educated Phd who specialise in international relations and has written books on the US blockade and hostile media coverage of Cuba.
Even so, El Loco insisted in relaying Lamrani’s translations himself, making for some hilariously slapstick scenes as the Frenchman whispered his answers in Bielsa’s ear.
On the pitch, though, Bielsa’s Leeds at their best have been enthralling to watch. Long gone is the turgid side that staggered to a mid-table finish last season; in 2018 they have played neat passing football coupled with a commitment to full-pitch pressing that has yielded instant results, made all the more impressive by the fact that by and large the Argentine has maintained almost the same squad.
Leeds have lost just three games in 24 and lead the Championship by three points, and a draw today against Hull City would guarantee that they will enter the New Year at the top.
Bielsa’s detractors – and in Argentina these number more than a few – have been eagerly waiting what they hope will be his latest collapse. After a spectacular start to the season Leeds did indeed stumble, raising expectations of another messy end following his disastrous tenure in France with Lille.
But those grim predictions proved premature. The Yorkshire side responded with seven straight wins to retake the summit, albeit in more pragmatic fashion than in that early burst of attacking excellence. Given the Championship’s gruelling duration – at 46 matches it is one of the world’s longest leagues – and the unique challenges of playing in north England’s famously soggy, overcast climate, that was perhaps inevitable, but arguably gives Bielsa even more credit. So often written off as an inflexible purist, he has proved everyone wrong again in adapting to his new circumstances.
“I have been insulted in my career, spat upon, they have thrown bottles at me – never nothing serious happened to me,” the Rosario native joked a h e a d o f o n e o f t h e Championship’s historically daunting fixtures, an away visit to infamous Millwall.
At this stage in his career nothing seems to faze the 63-year-old, who throughout his career has shown a laudable ability to block out his critics and follow his own rhythm.
That single-mindedness has made him a villain to many, but a hero to many more. In Chile, where he revitalised a flagging football culture and returned the Roja to South America’s top table; in Newell’s – how many coaches can boast a stadium named after them, after all? - even in the likes of Marseille and Athletic, where his teams briefly took on the world before running out of steam, he remains a cult figure, a status he has already earned at Leeds. The club even sells replicas of the bucket he sits on during games, the sexagenarian freely admitting that his joints will not allow him to adopt the crouching position he believes allows him to see the game more fully than if he were standing or sitting on the bench.
Leeds still have a long road to run before they can dream of the promised land of the Premier League. Bielsa’s tenure may yet turn out to be a false start, and these long winter months could prove crucial in determining whether he will achieve real success at Elland Road. But whatever happens from here to May he deserves recognition as a unique personality, a breed which is becoming scarcer as football becomes more commercialised and anodyne with every season that passes.
The end of the Messi-Ronaldo era? Football rings the changes
One of the enduring images from 2018 will remain Kylian Mbappe consoling Lionel Messi in the Russian city of Kazan, just after the final whistle in France’s 4-3 win over the Albiceleste in the last 16 of the World Cup.
This was to a large extent Mbappe’s year, as the teenage superstar exploded on the world stage by scoring twice in that game, the first World Cup brace by a teenager since Pele in 1958.
Still just 19 at the time, Paris SaintGermain forward also became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since the Brazilian legend, as France won the trophy for the second time by beating Luka Modric’s Croatia 4-2 in the final on a dark and damp Sunday in Moscow.
The World Cup itself was a joy to watch, a richly entertaining tournament full of memorable games and concluding with the highest-scoring final since 1966. From Spain’s 3-3 draw with Portugal in the group stage – featuring a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick – to Belgium’s 2-1 quarter-final win over Brazil and Croatia’s epic semi-final defeat of England in extra time, it was studded with memorable matches. Argentina, however, were disappointing.
Croatia’s remarkable run to the final and the premature exits of Germany, Spain and the Albiceleste showed that international football can still be unpredictable. It will also probably be remembered as the tournament that marked the end of Messi and Ronaldo’s dreams of lifting the World Cup. They were eliminated on the same day in the last 16, and 2018 may one day be remembered as the year when the Messi-Ronaldo era ended.
Both enjoyed prolific years domestically, with the Argentine star driving Barcelona to a Spanish league and cup double and Ronaldo winning another Champions League with Real Madrid before moving to Juventus in the transfer of the year.
However, their numbers are down on the phenomenal figures of past years, and instead it was the impish pass-master Modric who won the Ballon d’Or, and FIFA’s best player award, on the strength of his role in Madrid’s Champions League triumph and Croatia’s World Cup run. He was also the best player in Russia.
Ronaldo and Messi had shared the Ballon d’Or between them for the last decade, winning five each. Ronaldo was second this time, while the Argentine star was a suprise fifth, behind Antoine Griezmann and Mbappe.
Crowned the best young player, Mbappe will hope the future belongs to him. His PSG side are among the teams desperate to win the Champions League title.
This season, Real Madrid won a third title, beating Liverpool in this year’s final in Kiev with Gareth Bale scoring twice.
Meanwhile, there is lots to look forward to at international level in 2019.
The new UEFA Nations League has been an instant hit. It will conclude with the four-team finals in Portugal in June, with the hosts facing Switzerland and England playing the Netherlands in the last four.
However, the main international events in 2019 are elsewhere.
The first 24-team Asian Cup takes place in the UAE in January and February, before Brazil hosts the Copa América and the United States defend the CONCACAF Gold Cup. France are hoping to win another World Cup too, as they host the 24-team women’s tournament in June and July, with the USA the defending champions. Argentina will also be there.
A decision is expected soon on whether Egypt or South Africa host the 24-nation Africa Cup of Nations in June and July after Cameroon were stripped of the right to host the tournament. Lots to look forward to.