How a star-studded Argentina lifted the Under-20 World Cup in 1997

How a star-studded Argentina lifted the Under-20 World Cup in 1997

The world’s biggest icons, Mother Theresa and Princess Diana, passed away in 1997, while Bill Clinton was the still the US president. Popular culture was polluted by plenty of bands, P Diddy was the most unwanted rapper around, and ska became a new musical force led by No Doubt. Oasis, Green Day, The Prodigy and Radiohead released cracking albums, while Chris Cornell, who just passed away, was still leading Soundgarden before they broke up. Face Off, The Saint and James Bond’s Tomorrow Never Dies were some of the best movies from that year.

But if you’re a football fan in Malaysia like myself, there is just one big reason to remember that pivotal year; the 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship (now renamed as the Under 20 World Cup) was held right here in this country. Even today there seem to be many questions as to how Malaysia earned the right to host the event. Nevertheless, the whole tournament was a success and regarded by many as the best edition ever.

It featured many of the brightest talents that would go on to shape football heading into the new millennium, including Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Shunsuke Nakamura, Damien Duff, Marcelo Zalayeta, Nicolás Olivera and Stephan Appiah just to name a few.

Despite this, the team that went on to captivate the whole tournament with its brand of stylish, short passing and attacking football – the quintessential ingredients of what is regarded as La Nuestra – was none other than the eventual winner, Argentina.

Managed by former Colombia coach José Pékerman, Argentina featured the likes of emerging playmaker Juan Román Riquelme together with the classy Pablo Aimar, midfield starlet Esteban Cambiasso, promising defender Walter Samuel and other young stars such as Diego Placente, Bernardo Romeo and Lionel Scaloni. Collectively known as the ‘Pekerboys’, they were the cream of the crop developed from Argentina’s envied grassroots policy which facilitated their brand of tango football at its very best – but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to begin with.

Malaysia is a country that is obsessed with either England or Brazil. A team like Argentina, therefore, didn’t have that many friends here apart from the few like myself who were star struck by Diego Maradona’s performance at Mexico 86.

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Why England? Being a former colony of the British Empire there is always some nostalgia towards the Three Lions and the popularity of football clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool, plus the Premier League in general also played a huge part. And why Brazil? Well, for obvious reasons: Pelé, samba swagger and the most decorated side in World Cup history.

Argentina, or Los Pibes as the youth side is known, were based in Kangar, the capital of the most northern state in Malaysia, Perlis. They were grouped together with Hungary, Canada and Australia. The quiet atmosphere of this town gave Pékerman – who was aiming for his second title having won the previous edition in Qatar two years earlier – and his boys the much-needed calm to focus on the task ahead.

Their first match against Hungary saw them dispatch the young Magyars with relative ease thanks to goals from Romeo, Scaloni and emerging star Riquelme. This was perhaps the world’s first glimpse of Román (as he is more commonly known), a demonstration showing the potential that spawned the great words of Ray Hudson: “Riquelme’s pass is sweeter than a mother’s kiss.”

Romeo and Riquelme were on target again in the next match against Canada, but this time they had to overcome more stubborn opponents to win the game 2-1. The result was good enough to secure their place in the next round. Their last group game against Australia was expected to be a formality which should have allowed them to finish on top of the group, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Argentina took the lead through the in-form Romeo. An Australian side containing the likes of Brett Emerton, Lucas Neill and Vince Grella responded in spectacular fashion. Kostas Salapasidis got his 15 minutes of fame by scoring a hat-trick either side of the interval, stunning everyone who was watching the game.

Argentina did pull back, first through Placente before Riquelme equalised courtesy of an 88th-minute penalty. But to the delight of the 8,000-plus crowd, the game was far from over. In the 90th minute, Australia earned a penalty and Salapasidis made no mistake from the spot to score his fourth goal of the night, giving the young Socceroos a surprise win over Pékerman’s boys.

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Following that defeat, Argentina ended up finishing second in their group, and it put them on a difficult path for the rest of the finals. From the north, they flew down to the southernmost part of the Malaysian peninsular where an England side led by Michael Owen faced them in the round of 16. Owen was no stranger to football fans, especially Malaysia-based Liverpool supporters, in this country who had already seen what the wonderboy of English football was capable of the season before.

Coupled with Jamie Carragher and future Liverpool signing Danny Murphy, it was no surprise that most of the crowd in Larkin Stadium were in England colours. Goals from Riquelme and Aimar gave Argentina a 2-0 lead at half-time. England did pull one back through Carragher but it wasn’t enough as Argentina managed to hold on to a 2-1 win, earning a trip to the island of Borneo where they would play their quarter-final.

For Pablo Aimar, it wasn’t going to be his last time in Larkin. He would return to Malaysia in 2013 to sign with the home team Johor Darul Ta’zim in what turned out to be an uninspiring spell for the modern hero.

The team took a flight to play in Kuching, based in the state of Sarawak on the beautiful island of Borneo. After seeing off England in the round of 16, things were only going to get tougher; awaiting them in the last-eight were their arch-rivals Brazil.

At this point, Brazil were the hot favourites. They had brushed aside all their opponents thus far, including a comfortable 3-0 win over a French side containing Henry, Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka. This was followed by wins over South Africa and South Korea, against whom they plundered 10 goals. Their scoring onslaught didn’t stop there, and in the round of 16 they once again scored 10, this time past Belgium.

No one gave Argentina any hope, and this was the case with many football fans in the country who wanted to see their beloved boys in yellow triumph over their South American neighbours. I had classmates who couldn’t wait to see me on the first day at school after the match because in their mind a Brazil defeat was just simply out of the question. And they were right to think so judging by their results.

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With any encounter between Argentina and Brazil, you can expect an intense fight on the pitch. The crowd in Sarawak Stadium, who were mostly supporters of Brazil, weren’t left disappointed at all in terms of football entertainment.

As soon as the referee blew the whistle for kick-off, Brazil attacked from all angles. I remember some shots hit the bar, some flew just past the post, and this kept going on and on with my nails bitten to the pondering of how long we were going to last. Goalkeeper Leo Franco was in top form that day.

And then in the 79th minute, a beautiful one-two involving Riquelme and Scaloni resulted in the latter putting Argentina in the lead. The crowd in the stadium suddenly fell silent.

With 10 minutes still to play, Brazil had plenty of time and continued their onslaught as they kept pushing for an equaliser. However, on the day, Leo Franco didn’t look like he was going to be beaten. Then came the 90th minute, another swift counter from Argentina and substitute Martín Perezlindo scored to put the result beyond Brazil’s reach. It was all over, Brazil were out, and Argentina were through to the semi-finals.

Everyone inside the stadium was left frozen, unable to gauge how Brazil had scored so freely in previous matches and yet missed an abundance of chances against their rivals at the most crucial stage. That to me is the power and beauty of a Clásico encounter. After this game, I knew with certainty that Argentina were going to go all the way.

The victory over Brazil also gave the ‘Pékerboys’ a much-needed break from travelling as they continued to be based in Kuching for the semi-final match-up. Standing in their way for a place in the final were the boys in green from Ireland.

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This was probably the most boring Argentina match I’ve ever seen as the stadium was almost empty, the locals staying at home now that the Seleção were out. The Irish were a respectable side but a solitary strike from Romeo, his fourth in the competition, was good enough to send Argentina to their second consecutive World Youth Championship final.

After travelling from north to south and east to west, Argentina finally arrived in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. Most people would have thought that after dazzling against the likes of England, Brazil and Ireland to reach the final, Argentina would have won over the hearts of the locals, but that wasn’t the case.

The final was played at the Shah Alam Stadium, which had been the unofficial home ground to another South American rival, Uruguay. Having topped a group which also contained Malaysia, La Celeste had the privilege of maintaining their base in the Klang Valley throughout the whole tournament. The trio of Marcelo Zalayeta, Fabián Coelho and Nicolás Olivera were good enough to captivate the local crowd, giving Uruguay a sense of comfort going into this final.

That comfort came into effect as soon as the match kicked off, with Uruguay looking the more dominant side, and they didn’t take that long to rock the house. A free-kick was awarded to them 35 metres out, leaving Pablo García to beautifully curl the ball in the net to give his side the lead after just 15 minutes.

Argentina had to raise their game, and indeed they did. They were awarded a corner from which a melée in the box ensued, leaving Cambiasso to score the equaliser. The pressure on Uruguay didn’t stop there as Pékerman urged his players to move forward for the lead. With just two minutes left before the interval, Diego Quintana scored to give Argentina a much-deserved lead. Uruguay came back strongly in the second half, pressuring for the equaliser, but the Argentine defence, led by Walter Samuel, managed to keep the player of the tournament, Nicolás Olivera, at bay.

It was nerve-wracking in the end but Pékerman’s boys held on, earning Argentina their third World Youth Championship title. Prior to the win in Qatar two years earlier, Argentina had won the inaugural tournament in 1979, led by Maradona and Ramón Díaz, and they would eventually go on to win another three in the new millennium.

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Looking back, this team gave me plenty of hope for the future of Argentina in the post-Maradona era, and a Copa América or World Cup title seemed within reach. Remember this was 1997, when Pékerman and his assistant, Hugo Tocalli, were successful in Argentina’s grassroots and youth development revolution.

Many of the stars in this team went on to have successful club careers, with eight of the 18 squad members going on to earn caps at senior level. Riquelme would continue to dazzle with his vision and passes for Boca Juniors on both the domestic and continental fronts before going to Europe. 

Walter Samuel would have a successful start to his career with Boca, going on to establish himself as one of the best defenders in South America. It wasn’t long before Europe came knocking for him too. He would go on to enjoy several successful years with Roma, including winning the Scudetto in 2001, followed by a short pit stop with Real Madrid before embarking on another remarkable journey with Internazionale as part of their treble-winning side in 2010. 

Another member of that famed Inter side was Esteban Cambiasso. Back in 1997, he was already on the books of Real Madrid but was unable to secure a first-team place. After a few seasons on loan back in Argentina, he returned to the Spanish capital before establishing himself in Italy with the Nerazzurri

Aimar would go on to enjoy some incredible times at River Plate, excelling as one of the brightest playmakers in Argentina. In 2001, he was signed by Valencia and played a key role in the club’s glorious years from 2002 to 2004, which included two LaLiga titles and a UEFA Cup. He would later have a short spell with Real Zaragoza followed by a move to Benfica in Portugal. He would eventually retire at River after a short stint in Malaysia.

The were other players too who had decent careers for both club and country. Goalkeeper Leo Franco had the honour of replacing Argentine number 1 Carlos Roa at Mallorca, who famously retired due to his religious beliefs, and would repeat that feat at Atlético Madrid where he ended up replacing compatriot Germán Burgos.

Leandro Cufré spent some time with Roma and Monaco before finding success in Croatia with Dinamo Zagreb. Lionel Scaloni was a huge success at Deportivo, spending eight years with them including winning LaLiga in 2000. Diego Placente was a key figure for Bayer Leverkusen during their tantalising “Neverkusen” era before having success with Bordeaux.

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Bernardo Romeo, despite proving to be a prolific goalscorer in his years with San Lorenzo, including scoring six goals in seven matches in Malaysia, was unable to replicate this upon moving to Germany. He only managed to earn four caps for the senior side, mainly down to the presence of other illustrious centre-forwards such as Hernán Crespo, Julio Cruz and Diego Milito.

Team captain Diego Markic, despite spending several years in Italy with Bari, drifted completely off the radar and didn’t fulfil his promising talent. 

The one player that most of us here in Malaysia will never forget is Diego Quintana. Unfortunately, his club career wasn’t as illustrious as those enjoyed by his teammates, spending some time at home, in Spain and in Greece. Nevertheless, he will always remain a legend in our hearts for scoring the winning goal against Uruguay; a legacy that remains to this day.

As for the coach, José Pékermen, and his assistant Hugo Tocalli, the duo continued to play an important role in grassroots football in Argentina. As mentioned earlier, Argentina would go on to win another three more titles, including one in 2005 when a certain Lionel Messi was the star of the team.

This massive success at youth level has even prompted other footballing nations to study the Argentine model. Former defender Roberto Ayala in a recent interview said that his AC Milan teammate Oliver Bierhoff came to Argentina to study their youth development. This is a testament to how important the work of Pékerman and Tocalli was.

Pékerman had long since left the role when he was appointed as senior team manager in 2004 following the resignation of Marcelo Bielsa; he would eventually resign after the 2006 World Cup, but his team would leave a massive imprint with their brand of football played in Germany.

Tocalli would later manage the youth side and was the architect of Argentina’s last success at this level in 2007, with a side that contained the likes of Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María, Sergio Romero and Éver Banega. His departure in October 2007 marked a slow and steady decline in terms of youth talent in Argentina. Since then, the under-20 side hasn’t won any of the six subsequent editions and failed to even qualify in 2009 and 2013. In the latest edition, held in South Korea, they lost their first two games to eventual champions England and South Korea.

Despite winning convincingly in their last game against Guinea, it wasn’t enough to help Argentina progress further, bowing out at the earliest stage for the second successive tournament. It’s a sad reminder as to how great Argentina used to be in youth football.

By Sivan John @SivanJohn_

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