Forget Maradona, the real surprise is seeing Bilardo back
Amid all the furore over Diego Maradona’s imminent appointment as Argentina coach, an equally surprising and significant development has been all but overlooked: the return of Carlos Bilardo to the national team set-up at the age of 69, and after an 18-year absence.
Affectionately known as Narigon (Big Nose), Bilardo is one of the most controversial figures in Argentine soccer.
In 1986, he coached them to their second and last World Cup victory with a side built around Maradona, who was at his peak at the time. Four years later, he led them to the runners-up spot in Italy.
The latter, however, was generally regarded as a shabby campaign, which included two penalty shootout wins, a lot of negative negative football, and ended with two sendings-off in the final against Germany, a match in which Argentina already had five players suspended.
Bilardo is often regarded as personifying the ugly side of Argentine football.
He played in the notorious Estudiantes side of the late 1960s, when he would famously take a needle on to the pitch, poking it into his opponents at inconvenient moments.
He once seemed to imply that he had offered Brazil contaminated water in a World Cup match — he later said it was all a misunderstanding — and there was a story about him giving players heat rub to smother into the eyes of their opponents.
Whether there’s any truth to those reports or not, Bilardo’s influence could mark a change in attitude by Argentina.
Since 1990, Argentina have largely concentrated on playing attacking, passing football and have been overtaken in the gamesmanship stakes by many European teams.
Unfortunately, the new approach has coincided with a dearth of titles, their last coming at the 1993 Copa America under Alfio Basile.
With Brazil having already abandoned their traditional style for a counter-attacking game which also involves systematic fouling in midfield, the return of Bilardo, in whatever capacity, is a somewhat depressing prospect.
Brian Homewood, Buenos Aires
FILE PHOTO: Carlos Bilardo receives the Honor Trajectory award at the third annual Fox Sport Awards in Miami Beach, Dec. 05, 2005. REUTERS/Carlos Barria