SRoberto Ayala has long since ended his career as a soccer player, but in recent days he has had to see himself in shorts again and again. It wasn’t a pleasure. Ayala described what was broadcast on an endless loop by all the television stations as “the saddest moment of my career”. A dark hour that is one of the brightest in the history of the World Cup.
On July 4, 1998, the Netherlands and Argentina met in the quarter-finals. It was the last minute at the Marseille Velodrome, and the score was 1-1 after goals and sending-offs. The ball was sent on its way from the Dutch half, more than 40 meters in the direction of Dennis Bergkamp. What followed was poetry written on the lawn with cleated shoes.
Bergkamp took the ball out of the air with one movement. Spain’s world champion Xavi Hernandez once spoke about such a success: “When I see something like that, I say, ‘Wow, that’s talent’.” Bergkamp had said talent. He played the ball through Ayala’s legs and shot it into the top corner with his outside instep. The Netherlands won 2-1, Argentina went home – and from then on Ayala was the one who let Bergkamp fool her.
“The mistake didn’t happen on the ground”
Today, 24 years later, he says about the scene: “The mistake didn’t happen on the ground, the mistake was not reading a ball over 40 meters. I was badly positioned on this play. I could have cleared him with my head like a libero or just kicked him wide, but I was still caught off guard. I was just bad.”
Now, at the latest edition of the World Cup, Ayala will ensure that his successors in Argentina’s sky blue and white jersey don’t do the same against the same opponents. This Friday it’s against the Netherlands again, again in the quarter-finals (8 p.m. in the FAZ live ticker for the World Cup, on ARD and on MagentaTV). With Ayala on the bench.
He completes the squad of coach Lionel Scaloni in Qatar. Also present: Pablo Aimar and Walter Samuel. All former internationals, all belong to similar generations. Those born in the 1970s were united by their failure to try to equal the world champions of 1978 (3-1 in the final against the Netherlands) and 1986. The names are prominent, in addition to today’s co-trainers include Hernan Crespo, Claudio Lopez, Ariel Ortega and Diego Simeone. Argentina has been waiting for the World Cup trophy for 36 years, more fervently and longingly than any other nation.
Every four years, at home between the Rio Pilcomayo and the mountains of Tierra del Fuego, between Mendoza and Buenos Aires, an expectation arises that can paralyze all of Diego Maradona’s successors anew. Coach Scaloni deliberately chose assistants who know what it means to be responsible for the hopes and aspirations of an entire country. Above all, they should use their experience to support young players who are playing their first World Cup. The most important link is Pablo Aimar, who is also responsible for the U17s at the association and has previously coached some of today’s national players.
Aimar was caught on camera in the game against Mexico shedding some tears after Lionel Messi’s opening goal. Emotions had overwhelmed him in the face of impending retirement. At his only World Cup as a player, he was more a supporting character than a main character. His destiny in Germany in 2006 was on the bench, alongside Ayala there was a 0-0 draw at the end of the group stage.
Argentina survived that long ago in Qatar, albeit with a big blunder at the start against Saudi Arabia (1-2). That’s long history, the coaching team provided psychological support. Their key message was: Enjoy the game. Enjoy the tournament. “Even if we lose, the sun will rise again the next day,” said Lionel Scaloni, who was in Argentina’s World Cup squad in 2006. So who would know better than he and his assistants, who despite painful defeats with the national team can all look back on successful careers. The sentences could hardly have come from more eager mouths. Argentina’s players got the message.