15-June Bosnia-Herzegovina (11pm GMT Rio de Janeiro)
21-June Iran (5pm GMT Belo Horizonte)
25-June Nigeria (5pm GMT Porto Alegre)
After topping their qualification group without looking unduly troubled, Jeremy Lim thinks the tournament in Brazil could be the defining moment of a very special Argentine generation.
Coach: Alejandro Sabella
Now serving his third year, Alejandro Sabella has plucked Argentina from the ashes of a disappointing Copa America 2011 campaign. The well-travelled former midfielder, who formed part of Daniel Passarella’s backroom staff at Parma and Corinthians, led Estudiantes to Copa Libertadores victory as Coach before assuming his current role. An astute tactician, he is a firm believer in Albiceleste legend Carlos Bilardo’s coaching principles, and has helped some of Argentina’s biggest stars to fulfil their potential playing for their country.
Why they could be dangerous
Because they have Lionel Messi. And Sergio Agüero. Plus Pablo Zabaleta, Ángel Di María as well as a host of other stars blooded at top European levels – giving them the sort of international credibility to become automatic contenders for football’s ultimate prize. Messi and strike partner Gonzalo Higuaín netted 19 goals between themselves to help their country top South America’s World Cup qualifying group, ensuring Argentina will have the firepower to outscore most opponents in the upcoming tournament.
The world on his shoulders: Lionel Messi
The four-time Ballon d’Or winner’s genius is evident, but this World Cup will present Lionel Messi a golden opportunity to scratch a perennial itch – transferring his extra-terrestrial prowess in a Barcelona shirt to the international front, for his country, on football’s greatest stage. Finishing second top South American scorer during the qualifying phases with 10 strikes could suggest the 26-year-old is finally ready to assume the burden of responsibility for his nation’s destiny, in a manner only one before him could…
Did you know?
Argentina has won the World Cup, Confederations Cup and Olympic Gold in its history. Mario Kempes lit up the finals on home soil in 1978, before Diego Maradona captained his side to the 1986 trophy. Gabriel Batistuta had been crucial to lifting the inaugural Confederations Cup in 1992. Lastly, Los Albiceleste swept to Olympic Gold in 2004 before repeating the feat in 2008 – that cohort is now expected to form the bulk of Alejandro Sabella’s squad in Brazil.
Country legend: Diego Maradona
His feats, nearly two decades prior, remain the only reason why the slightest shadows of doubt still exist over Lionel Messi’s mettle. Diego Maradona is God, his mesmeric dribbles in Mexico as he led his nation to World Cup glory etched in the minds of legions raised on his magic. The 53-year-old would become Argentina boss later in his life to mixed results. But Maradona the player will be who the present team aspires to emulate this summer.
Given Argentina’s offensive depth, Alejandro Sabella’s 4-2-3-1 can resemble permutations of 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 at any given time. Indeed, the Coach has experimented successfully, regularly switching about his line-up midway to keep opponents guessing. Far from being merely dependent on Messi, the shape enables dangerous attackers in Agüero and Di María to exert maximum impact on proceedings too. A soft-looking rear-guard will be shielded by the steely midfield pairing of Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago.
…Bosnia-Herzegovina P2 W2 D0 L0 F7 A0
…Nigeria P6 W4 D1 L1 F8 A6
…Iran P0 W0 D0 L0 F0 A0
Population: 41.1 million
World Cup appearances: 15
Best finish: Winners, Argentina 1978 & Mexico 1986
Famous for: Eliminating England at Mexico 1986 with Diego Maradona’s handball.
Top Division: Primera División
How they got to the World Cup: Finished first in South America group.
FIFA World Ranking: 7
Last World Cup Appearance: South Africa 2010 – Humiliated 4-0 by Germany in the quarter-finals.
Continental Honours: 1978, 1986 World Cup Champions & 1921, 1925, 1927, 1929, 1937, 1941, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1955, 1957, 1959, 1991, 1993 South American Champions
Most Capped Player: Javier Zanetti (145 caps)
Leading International Scorer: Gabriel Batistuta (56 goals)
Nickname: La Albiceleste – The White and Sky Blues