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May 29, 2011

Carlos Tevez vs Sergio Batista

The Copa America in Argentina is a little over a month away, and whilst Buenos Aires will only play host to the final, the city's media - which is also the country's media - are gearing up for the tournament. Having not won anything since the 1993 Copa in Ecuador, Argentines are desperate to end their trophy drought, even though manager Sergio Batista insists preparation for the 2014 World Cup is the main priority. The will-they, won't-they saga surrounding Japan's inclusion (they won't, it was finally announced last week; Costa Rica will take part instead) has been the cause of many headlines, but an individual exclusion might also have a huge bearing on how the tournament pans out.

Twenty goals and six assists meant that during 2010-2011, Carlos Tevez was directly involved in nearly 45% of Manchester City's goals in the Premier League. That's even without including the others in which he played a part in the build-up without playing the final pass. As well as this, he's added the FA Cup to his medal haul and can now boast that he's won everything there is to win in England (he and Pablo Zabaleta having become the first Argentine pair to win the FA Cup since Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa). But barring a miracle of near Biblical scope, he won't be turning out for Argentina in the tournament. Why not?

In September, Tevez starred in a 4-1 thrashing of newly-crowned world champions Spain, a win which secured Sergio Batista's place as permanent manager of the seleccion. The problem, for Batista, was that there were frequent mutterings behind the scenes that one or two senior players were agitating for Diego Maradona to be reinstated as manager after the AFA forced him out in the wake of the catastrophic exit from the World Cup. Subsequent friendlies against Japan and Brazil saw Tevez included in Batista's first squads since being confirmed as permanent manager. Then in late January he named a squad to face Portugal in another friendly, and Tevez was dropped.

At the time Batista insisted that the players who'd been dropped (Gabriel Heinze and Martin Demichelis also didn't get called up for the Portugal game) were still very much in contention for a place in the squad for the Copa America. Those mutterings about players unhappy with the identity of the new boss were getting louder, though. Tevez had always been a favourite of Maradona, even when not playing especially well for Argentina under his stewardship, and another absentee was Sergio Aguero - Maradona's son-in-law.

Whilst Batista has since patched things up with Aguero - if indeed they ever were genuinely broken - Tevez has seemed further from being selected even as his end of season form for City has been so brilliant. When Batista recently travelled to various cities in Europe, meeting his players to discuss their roles in the side, he only sent an assistant to Manchester, with instructions to only talk to Pablo Zabaleta. Tevez, increasingly frustrated (kissing the Argentine flag printed on his shinpad in celebration after his free kick goal in the penultimate league game against Stoke was a message to fans and Batista back in Argentina), broke his silence last week. 'I've tried calling Batista,' he said, 'but he never picks up. And he's never spoken to me.'

Batista has since admitted that he hasn't dealt with Tevez the way he perhaps should have done, accepting he should have gone to Manchester himself to talk to the player. He's insisted, however, that his strike force is already decided; Lionel Messi in the 'false nine' role he's enjoyed for Barcelona, with support from the wings in a 4-3-3, and Gonzalo Higuain as backup or a plan B should the approach need changing. There is, says Batista, simply no place for Tevez in that tactical plan, even though Ezequiel Lavezzi and Angel Di Maria as the wide men in the front three have looked less than impressive. With Aguero now expected to be part of the Copa America squad, Tevez seems the only exile, and although Batista insists no-one's discounted from plans for the World Cup qualifying campaign, it's hard to see those as more than token words.

Into this intrigue, of course, we must add the figure who towers over issues affecting the Argentine national team like a man riding an elephant through a field of dormice. Diego Maradona has waded into the debate with all the subtlety and forethought he's known for, telling journalists shortly after accepting his multi-multi-million dollar offer to manage Al-Wasl in the United Arab Emirates that a manager, 'would have to be drunk or high not to pick Tevez.' In case there's any doubt, yes, we are talking of the same Diego Maradona who didn't call up Javier Zanetti or Esteban Cambiasso for last year's World Cup, and thought Jonas Gutierrez would be just fine at right back.

Tevez, after expressing his frustration as mentioned above, has been largely silent on the issue, preferring to keep his head down and concentrate on playing. The fact that he took to the Argentine media for his dialogue with Batista is probably only because, as he said, he was unable to speak with him one-on-one. Tevez's form for Argentina over the last few years has frequently failed to live up to what he's done at club level (although he was superb in that demolition of Spain), but one thing Maradona had right before the World Cup was his popularity, calling Carlitos, 'the player of the people.'

In not calling him up, Batista might be playing a dangerous game, whether or not it's due to politics. Win the Copa America and all will be forgiven, but fail to win it without Tevez in the team, and pressure from media and fans will only increase ahead of a 'home continent' World Cup. He may or may not be still with City next season, but in his homeland Tevez's relationship with the national team causes more concern.

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