Martino to lead Argentina into the unknown
As soon as it became apparent that Alejandro Sabella was going to stand down as Argentina manager -- in fact, long before we really knew whether or not he would -- there were a few names who were touted as favourites to take over. One of those names was seen as a potential, even probable, successor months before Argentina even stepped out at the Maracanã for the World Cup final. On Tuesday, he finally said yes. Gerardo Martino is the new manager of Argentina.
He's got big boots to fill. Sabella leaves Argentina after 41 matches in charge, of which he lost only five. Of those five, two were against Brazil in friendlies for which both sides were restricted to players playing their club football in either the Argentine or Brazilian league -- hardly a fair contest given the gulf in economic power between the cash-strapped Argentine league and its richer Brazilian equivalent.
Another was in the last World Cup qualifier, with Argentina already having topped the group, away to a Uruguay side desperate for a win to get to the intercontinental playoff. The only two defeats Sabella suffered in meaningful games were a 1-0 reversal away to Venezuela in his second qualifying match, and the extra time defeat to Germany in the World Cup final. Martino is the man charged with continuing along similar lines.
It's a big moment for the Argentine FA for more than just that reason, though. Martino was Julio Grondona's choice to take over should Sabella step down, but the timing of his appointment a couple of weeks after Grondona's death means he's the first Argentina boss since César Luis Menotti in 1974 to be appointed by the AFA without Grondona at the helm. It'll be the next man, true, who is appointed with no input at all from the former president, but Martino still joins a very different AFA to the one which employed his predecessors for three and a half decades.
Some things won't change as quickly as Martino would like; he wanted to put his own man, Jorge Theiler, in charge of the youth system immediately, but will have to wait to do so until current youth boss Humberto Grondona (the deceased AFA president's son) comes to the end of his contract next year. After that, though, Martino and his team will be given control of a youth system which has faltered under Grondona Jr.'s leadership, with the aim of better unifying the youth and full national team levels.
The immediate challenge, though, is a debut friendly on Sept. 3. The opponents for that friendly are the same as the ones as in Sabella's last match in charge -- it's going to be a replay of the World Cup final, in Dusseldorf. As such he'll name his first squad as early as next week, though an AFA source has hinted to news agencies that the squad will be the same 23 who competed in Brazil.
Martino has a good relationship with at least two key members of that squad, having spent last season in charge of Barcelona, seeing Javier Mascherano and Lionel Messi every day. In spite of a fraught season off the pitch for Barça as an institution -- the Neymar transfer scandal, the resignation of Sandro Rosell as president, Messi's fitness issues and the Catalán press' reluctance to give Martino full support even after a record-breaking start to the season among much more -- the relationship between manager and players (the two Argentine players, at any rate) remains strong.
"I'm sure we'll see him in charge of the Argentine national team one day, because he's a great coach," Messi said at one point last season. Martino meanwhile, once opined that Messi, "will play in goal one day -- and he'll do it well." If Sabella's management showed Argentines the value of having a tight-knit group where players and coaching staff get on well, then Martino certainly seems to be a continuation of that thinking.
Of course, when we talk of a new manager and squad togetherness, there's an elephant in the room. This being Argentina, though, he's an elephant everyone actively wants to talk about. The suggestion above that the opening friendly will involve the same players who went to Brazil means Carlos Tevez probably won't be involved, but at some point Martino will have to make a decision on the Juventus man.
Julito ('Little Julio') Grondona -- Grondona Sr.'s other son -- who as president of Arsenal de Sarandí, the club his father founded, and has a place on the AFA board, told Radio América that, "We've spoken to Martino about the subject, but not specifically about Carlos [Tevez]; we just let him know that there were no players who were off limits for a call-up."
The suggestion from the link above is that Martino is a big fan of Tevez, perhaps preferring him to Gonzalo Higuaín as a partner to Messi and Sergio Agüero, but that Martino is aware that the former Manchester United and Manchester City man is a potentially divisive figure. Reports suggest Martino plans to talk to Messi (who's likely to remain as captain) and Mascherano, and if they don't have any problems with Tevez, he'll be called up.
The mood in Argentina around the announcement is generally positive. Everyone hopes the side will play like Martino's Newell's Old Boys did in the first half of 2013, and like how Barcelona did last fall, but they're aware that he's able to employ other systems if it gets results. Martino is one of the most successful managers in the history of the Paraguayan national team, but his tournament performance with them (a Copa América final in 2011 and almost knocking eventual winners Spain out in the quarterfinals of South Africa 2010) was marked by a reliance on defence (partly because attacking fulcrum Salvador Cabañas was shot in the head a few months before the 2010 World Cup) and a phenomenal number of draws.
Martino now has the job every Argentine manager wants. It's a key moment for both the association and the national side, but the team should be in good hands as they look towards the next World Cup campaign.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been ESPNFC's South America correspondent since 2008. Twitter: @HEGS_com