Four new coaches are preparing for the next set of South America’s World Cup qualifiers, just over two weeks from now.
All of them have been dropped in the deep end. Edgardo Bauza of Argentina, Angel Guillermo Hoyos of Bolivia, Tite of Brazil and Francisco Arce of Paraguay all have one thing in common – lack of time on their training ground with their players.
Many of those they pick will be in action for their clubs on Sunday August 28th – the best of them on the other side of the Atlantic. They take their field for their countries the following Thursday in the 7th round of the continent’s marathon qualification campaign, before playing in the 8th round the following Tuesday.
In the previous campaign the matches were generally staged on Friday and Tuesday – so there was more time to prepare for the first match, but less time between rounds. The new arrangement is hard on those with most players based in Europe – and very hard on these new coaches.
At this stage in proceedings the teams should in theory have consolidated an identity. After the last World Cup they had a year to play friendlies, and then there was the Copa America in Chile to serve as a dress rehearsal for the qualifiers. And a third of the way through the Russia 2018 campaign, this time there was an extra tournament, the Copa Centenario, for experiments and fine tuning. The problem for the four new coaches is that they have missed all of this process. In quick succession the next third of the qualifiers are coming up – two rounds next month, two in October and two in November. And there is no real opportunity to test anything new.
Bauza bowed to the inevitable when he named his Argentina squad at the end of last week. The headlines all went to the inclusion of Lionel Messi, swiftly going back on his decision to retire from international football. Messi’s rethink is almost certainly, in part at least, a recognition of contemporary reality. After his disappointment in 1966 Pele said he would not play in another World Cup – and he only returned to the Brazil side two years later, on the way to book end his top level career in magnificent style in Mexico 70. Assuming that he wants to do something similar in Russia 2018, Messi does not have the same luxury. The longer he stays out, the harder it would be for Argentina to qualify; when he missed the first four rounds of the current campaign with injury, Argentina struggled badly without him.
Messi’s inclusion aside, the main talking point in Bauza’s squad is that it is almost exactly the same as that of his predecessor Gerardo Martino. Some fringe players have been changed, but the core of the group is exactly the same – a recognition that there is no time available for a major overhaul.
In the next few days it will be interesting to see if the three other new coaches follow Bauza’s line. Hoyos of Bolivia probably has carte blanche to make radical changes; the team have almost no chance of making it to Russia, so why not build for the future?
The cases of Brazil and Paraguay, currently just outside the qualification places, are more delicate. This is Arce’s second spell in charge of Paraguay. He might do well to recall the lessons of the first – he tried to change things too quickly when he took over, and results suffered as a consequence. He might be well advised to be more cautious this time round.
And what of Brazil? Tite has an easy decision to make – the recall of centre back Thiago Silva will help draw a line between the new regime and that of Dunga, his controversy-seeking predecessor. But there are other key choices to make. Might Neymar be considered too petulant to be captain? But if not him, who is the alternative? And who will be in goal? Alisson, who has just joined Roma, was very much Dunga’s choice, and for all his promise may have been promoted too quickly. At club level with Corinthians Tite had success with the giant Cassio, man of the match in the final of the Club World Cup against Chelsea. But he seemed to fall out with the keeper shortly before taking charge of the national team. Keeping goal for Brazil is a high pressure job, especially with the team in danger of missing out on a World Cup for the first time ever. It will be fascinating to see who Tite turns to first as the man to form Brazil’s last line of defence.