On the one hand, there is Argentina, one of the blue bloods of international soccer, a two-time World Cup champion — one of just five nations to have won it more than once — and a country that can legitimately claim to have been the birthplace of two of the, oh, four or five greatest soccer players ever.
On the other, there is Bosnia-Herzegovina, a relative newcomer on the international soccer scene — and the world at large, since it didn’t come into existence until 1992 — that has played a level of soccer in the past few years that has lifted it on to the international stage.
The two nations meet tonight at Busch Stadium in an international friendly match that could well be a World Cup round of 16 or later match next summer in Brazil. It’s the first time two men’s national teams have met in St. Louis since the United States played Paraguay at the Soccer Park in 1997.
Tonight’s match, like that one, is a friendly, a game with nothing real on the line and both coaches getting a chance to look at younger players alongside established veterans as they prepare their rosters for the real stuff next summer. The biggest thing about the game may well be who isn’t here. Argentina star Lionel Messi, who is either No. 1 or 2 on just about everybody’s list of the greatest player around today (Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Real Madrid would be the competition), is out after hurting his hamstring in a match for his Spanish club, Barcelona.
That very much changes the complexion of the match, from both Argentina’s and from Bosnia-Herzegovina’s point of view. The simple answer is that there is no substitute for Messi, a supremely talented player known for dazzling runs through opposing defenses and for manufacturing goals out of what seems the slightest of possibilities.
“Without Messi, any team of the world is different,” said Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella. “He is Argentina, but any team is different with (that type of ) player.”
“I am sorry that Messi is not playing, because I wanted to play against the best Argentina,” said Bosnia-Herzegovina coach Safet Susic. “However, even without Messi, Argentina is a very strong team. With Messi, Argentina is top four. Without him, top six. It’s sorry for the spectacle. We also wanted to play against the best nation in the world, but it is what it is.”
Argentina may be just a notch below the best in the world. Sabella tabbed Brazil, Spain and Germany as the favorites in next summer’s World Cup, putting his team in the next group. Argentina is ranked third in FIFA’s sometimes suspect world rankings and finished atop South American qualifying, though Brazil didn’t take part because it had qualified automatically as the host nation.
With Messi out, Argentina’s purpose in these games switches to the experimental. Sabella wouldn’t say who he would use in the attack tonight – other than to say it would be two forwards – but how to deal without life without Messi is now a very real issue. Messi has been in and out of the lineup at Barcelona three times in the past year with minor injuries, which Argentina, as well as soccer fans worldwide, hope won’t carry into next summer. Argentina played its first match without Messi on Friday in New Jersey and tied Ecuador 0-0.
“There’s a lot of time from now to the World Cup,” Sabella said. “We must have optimism.”
For Bosnia-Herzegovina, Argentina provides a valuable test. It’s a statement about the progress Bosnia-Herzegovina has made that it can play teams like Argentina now.
“It’s definitely an honor to be playing a team like this,” said Bosnian forward Vedad Ibisevic, who lived in St. Louis after his family fled Bosnia after the country’s war and played at Roosevelt High and SLU. “The last couple of years, we have played the best national teams in the world. It’s a great preparation for what’s coming up in Brazil. It’s a team that plays a different style, a team from South America. It’s a great opportunity for us to see where we stand against this kind of opponent.”
Among those teams Bosnia-Herzegovina played last season were Brazil, which it lost to 2-1 in 2012, and Mexico, which it lost to 2-1 last summer. Earlier this year, Bosnia-Herzegovina lost to the United States 4-3 at home in Sarajevo.
“It’s going to be a good test for us to see what we can do against such a big team,” Susic said. “It’s time for us to win against a team from South America.”
Those results would indicate a team that doesn’t mind scoring goals. Bosnia-Herzegovina scored 30 goals in its 10 World Cup qualifying matches, the fourth-most goals in Europe, behind Germany, Netherlands and England. Argentina is much the same way. It scored 35 goals in 16 qualifying matches.
Bosnia-Herzegovina figures to have the home-field advantage owing to St. Louis’ large Bosnian population, though tickets for this match have moved more slowly than for the other two matches in St. Louis this year, between Manchester City and Chelsea and between Real Madrid and Inter Milan. Though Bosnia-Herzegovina’s workout at Busch Stadium was supposed to be closed to the public on Sunday, the team put out word on the Internet to invite its fans to the practice, and about 1,000 showed up and were allowed to enter the stadium and watch the team go through drills. The players came over and applauded the fans at the end, and the fans heartily applauded back.
“It is motive for us to play our best,” Susic said. “We do not want to disappoint the fans. The boys will give the best to get the best result possible.”
SOURCE: St. Louis Post Dispatch
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