A legacy of greatness
Argentina's success is built on its commitment to youth
By John F. Molinaro, CBCSports.ca
The list of world-class stars Argentina has produced reads like a who's who of international soccer.
Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Javier Saviola, Juan Ramon Riquelme, Diego Simeone, Pablo Aimar, Esteban Cambiasso, Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez ... they all played at the FIFA U-20 World Cup before going on to achieve world-wide fame during their respective pro careers.
Another future star in the making always seems ready to come off the rolls of the impressive Argentine assembly line to take the soccer world by storm; a year after Messi guided Argentina to a FIFA World Youth championship in 2005, he was starring for Spanish outfit FC Barcelona, one of the most famous clubs in the world.
Diego Maradona made his pro debut when he was only 16 years old. (Getty Images)
Little wonder Argentina has dominated the U-20 World Cup, winning a record five tournaments (including four of the last six). The South American powerhouse has also asserted itself at senior level, winning 14 Copa America titles (South American championships) and two FIFA World Cups (1978 and 1986), one more than England, the inventors of the modern game.
So, it begs the question: Why does Argentina produce a staggering number of world-class players?
One reason is the quality of coaching and a deep commitment to developing young talent.
"Argentina has an excellent youth team program and they have the best coaches in the world in terms of teaching young players," soccer commentator Dick Howard told CBCSports.ca.
Howard also points out Argentine pro clubs have a knack for spotting emerging talent at a young age.
"All the top teams in Argentina identify players when they're still young, bring them into their system, and place them into their regional training centres," Howard said. "From the time the players walk through the door when they're 13, they're looked after as they grow up and work their way into the starting line-up."
Indeed, Argentinos Juniors, one of the country's top teams, discovered Diego Maradona when he was only 10 years old. After several years of playing in the club's youth team, Maradona made his debut for Argentinos Juniors just days before his 16th birthday.
In 1979, Maradona helped Argentina win the FIFA World Youth Championship in Japan and moved to Europe, where he joined FC Barcelona and then Napoli en route to becoming the greatest soccer player of his era.
Spotting players with potential at a young age, though, isn't enough. Hugo Tocalli, coach of Argentina's under-20 team, points to Argentina's rigorous and stringent screening process that separates the proverbial wheat from the chaff.
"Looking at these players, their careers are like a funnel," Tocalli said. "At the start there's a real jam, a huge one, where all these players are getting into the game. And then it gets narrower and narrower and in the end there are only few players coming out.
"So to make it into the [Argentine] first division, and to be the best player on your team in the first division and then to be selected for the national team, that's hard.
"It takes us a year-and-a-half to choose a team of under-17 players. We track 130 or 150 players, and then narrow it down to twenty. This is why I'm saying it's like a funnel, a really small funnel," Tocalli said.
The unstable economic situation in Argentina allows soccer officials to draw from a vast pool of kids from every walk of life - a much larger talent pool when compared to other countries where soccer isn't the only way to escape poverty.
"We have kids who are from really poor families, who have to do so much even just to get to practice, and we have kids who are from the middle class, and from the higher classes," Tocalli said. "We have some kids who don't study, and others who want to be doctors or lawyers. We have guys from all walks of life."
Another key element of Argentina's development program, according to Tocalli, is that it won't sacrifice short-term success for achieving its long-term goals.
"I don't feel pressure to take my players and make them World Cup champions. My job is to train these guys so that after the U-20 World Cup they can play in the major leagues and for the senior national team," Tocalli said.
He also believes Argentina's overwhelming success in producing star players can be attributed to the fact the game is such an integral part of the national culture and identity.
"When a father has a son, he really believes this kid is going to be the next Maradona. When these kids are born, the first present they get from their parents is the jersey of their parent's favourite soccer club.
"Then they take their first step, and the next present is a soccer ball to kick around. Everyone does it - the father, the mother, the little sister - so they just live with a real passion for the game."
Added Tocalli: "I believe it comes from [the womb], this obsession with soccer. Because the mother passes it on and the father passes it on. To be a soccer player, it's really something - and I think it's the same with Brazil - that they're born and then they go out to play.
"Soccer is what's important to South American countries like Argentina and Brazil."