Friday saw Angel Di Maria's arrival for training with Argentina, completing their group after taking a few days of well-earned rest with his family in Rosario. "He's a friend who's reached the top," said goalkeeper Sergio Romero in a video interview with ESPNDeportes.
That fact -- not Di Maria's form, although that's vital too, of course, but the friendship -- is a huge part of the cautious optimism that seems to pervade the Argentina camp when they speak publicly at present. It's not just that Di Maria is popular with the other players, it's that they're all popular with one another. Alejandro Sabella has placed a high premium on the group dynamic, and hopes to see it come to fruition in the next couple of weeks of training together.
The importance of the group is why Carlos Tevez -- aside from his very pedestrian record at international level -- wasn't called up, it's why Federico Fazio, near the end of a fine season for Sevilla, knew he was out of the reckoning after an angry radio interview in which he accused Sabella of "lacking respect" for a player playing "at a high level." It's also why a rumour that Lionel Messi doesn't get on with Willy Caballero, leading to the latter's exclusion, has spread in recent months, although to all appearances that seems to be rubbish -- photos emerged of the two hugging in the tunnel ahead of Barcelona's latest match against Malaga.
The group is vital for Sabella, and in one way that is why Caballero's not been called up; whether his relationship with Messi is perfectly cordial or not, it's clear that Romero's relationship not just with the attacking talisman but with the whole squad is fantastic. "We're a group of good friends," he told ESPNDeportes.
- Kelly: Di Maria crucial to Argentina
It's clear that this has been Sabella's thinking from the start; a focus on the group and on flexibility ahead of players -- Romero for Caballero being perhaps the most obvious example -- who might seem more talented or have more playing time.
There's no shortage of examples of how this has worked in the past, of course. We needn't even leave Argentina, in fact, to see how keeping the side's best players happy and breeding a good group atmosphere can lead to success. As Jonathan Wilson notes in "Inverting The Pyramid," Carlos Bilardo experimented with using a 3-5-2 on a tour of Europe in 1984 and decided to implement the formation -- becoming the first, or one of the first, managers to do so at international level -- for the 1986 World Cup, realising it was an ideal system to combine the players he had while getting the best out of Diego Maradona.
At that same World Cup, Bilardo gave a call-up to a 32-year-old Ricardo Bochini. Largely recognised as the greatest player in Independiente's history, Bochini was Maradona's idol, and was included in the squad at the playmaker's express request. When he was given a late run-out with Argentina 2-0 up in the semifinal against Belgium, Maradona trotted over to him and welcomed him to the pitch with the phrase, "Maestro, we've been waiting for you."
Four years later, Bilardo again deferred to Maradona for at least one decision on the squad; River Plate legend (and until this week, manager) Ramon Diaz was in the form of his playing life, in the midst of a brilliant run of goalscoring form for Monaco, and was seen as an obvious inclusion in the squad for Italia '90. Diaz wasn't called up, though, and the story has persisted ever since -- a very open secret -- that it was Maradona who told Bilardo not to call him up.
I very much doubt Sabella's bowing to individual players to anything like that degree this year, but avoiding the kind of internal arguments witnessed at recent tournaments by certain other nations -- France come to mind, as perhaps inevitably do the Netherlands -- is key for him. This really does seem to be a group of friends, and all Argentine fans will be hoping things remain that way.