Has the sun finally set on Javier Zanetti?
Has Javier Zanetti's international career finally come to an end?
New Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella paid tribute to him last week - and then left him out of the squad to face Venezuela and Nigeria. He has forced his way back before after being dropped but at the age of 38 can he really come back again?
One of the most remarkable aspects of Zanetti's haul of 145 international caps is that the total could have been even higher. The Inter Milan stalwart was controversially left out of the squad for both of the last two World Cups - despite the fact that Argentina have had such difficulty producing full-backs.
Even as a 38-year-old, Zanetti remains committed, fit and dedicated to his football. Photo: Getty
That lack of decent alternatives may be a major reason why Zanetti - whose commitment, fitness and dedication cannot be questioned - has managed to stick around for as long as he has done.
By way of illustration, Pablo Zabaleta - more at home as a right-sided midfielder - is currently Argentina's first-choice right-back.
Perhaps the biggest condemnation of Argentina's deficiency is that Zanetti's last games for his country came on the other flank.
During this summer's Copa America Sabella's predecessor Sergio Batista came to the conclusion that his best option at left-back was none other than the right-footed Zanetti. The decision was perhaps one reason why Argentina struggled so much to open up a Uruguay side which went down to 10 men after an early red card for midfielder Diego Perez.
Six years ago, when he was in charge of Argentina, Jose Pekerman declared himself envious of Brazil's tradition for mass-producing dynamic and attacking full-backs. Zanetti was the best equivalent he had. But then, astonishingly, he opted not to take him to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, an omission even more bizarre than Diego Maradona's decision to do without him four years later in South Africa.
What on earth was Pekerman thinking of? One Argentine journalist, whose opinion I respect, swears that it was because the coach had come to the conclusion that Zanetti was a jinx.
It is certainly true that Zanetti can hardly claim to be a lucky charm for Argentina. He first played for his country towards the end of 1994. The previous year Argentina won a second consecutive Copa America, and their 14th overall, but have not won another senior title since.
Diego Maradona controversially left Zanetti out of his 2010 World Cup squad. Photo: AFP
While not being blessed with full-backs the same can hardly be said for Argentina when it comes to other positions. Between 1995 and 2007 they won the World Youth Cup - featuring players aged 20 or under - five times out of seven.
The 1995 winners were captained by the maverick left-back Juan Pablo Sorin, Pekerman's captain in 2006 and the last top-class attacking full-back to have come out of the country. The 1997 side were especially strong in midfield, with Juan Roman Riquelme, Esteban Cambiasso and Pablo Aimar, as well as centre-back Walter Samuel. Four years later Nicolas Burdisso was the standout defender, Maxi Rodriguez and Andres D'Alessandro shone in midfield and Javier Saviola provided the cutting edge.
The 2003 team failed to win the title, but left a legacy of Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez. Lionel Messi was the clear star from the class of 2005, supported by Zabaleta, Fernando Gago and Sergio Aguero, who also shot Argentina to triumph in 2007, backed up by goalkeeper Sergio Romero, midfielder Ever Banega and the flying Angel Di Maria.
Even though some of these players may have fallen short of expectations, it is still a dazzling cast list. And while it is clearly easier to win a World Youth title - or an Olympic football gold medal - than a World Cup, it is understandable that Argentines are left frustrated by their long wait for a senior trophy.
There have been some spectacular failures along the way - the 2002 World Cup side arrived as favourites but crashed out at the group stage.
There have been some near misses - especially the 2004 Copa America, when Argentina outplayed what was essentially a reserve Brazil side, who snatched a last-minute equaliser and won on penalties.
But some wounds have been self-inflicted, such as the lack of balance between attack and defence in the last World Cup, and, I would argue, the absence of Zanetti in 2006. In order to accommodate the roaming of Sorin down the left, coach Pekerman ended up playing a central defender at right-back. The plan backfired spectacularly in the quarter-finals against Germany as Argentina dominated but ultimately failed to convert possession into clear-cut chances. Some well-timed bursts from Zanetti might have made all the difference, appearing as an element of surprise and stretching the German lines.
Rather than being a jinx, in 2006 at least, he might have been the missing piece of the jigsaw.
If you've got any questions on South American football you can email them to email@example.com and Tim will pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
David Sirkin asks: In light of the recent insipid performances by both the Brazilian and Argentine teams, why haven't we seen the inclusions of the Lazio superstars Hernanes and Zarate for their respective countries?
Tom Vickery answers: Zarate has a tough task getting in because Argentina have so much strength in depth up-front. Even without Tevez the current squad has Aguero, Lisandro Lopez and Eduardo Salvio alongside Messi, with Juan Manuel Martinez of Velez in the squad of home-based players. Not easy to get past that lot - he's going to have to do well on a consistent basis to stand a chance.
Hernanes is a strange case - poorly selected wide-left against France earlier this year, he couldn't get in the game, got frustrated and picked up a silly and uncharacteristic red card, and has been out in the cold ever since.
Personally, though, I'd love to see him in. He offers so much - he's versatile and strikes the ball beautifully with both feet. I think I'm in a minority of one here, but I even think he's worth a look in the holding role for Brazil - he can mark and I think he can be a more natural passer from deep than Lucas Leiva. I'd love to see it tried out, but, as I say, I seem to be the only one who thinks that way.