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With Son in Mind, Passarella Shapes Dream

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, June 19, 1998; Page C9




PARIS — Argentina used to be Diego Maradona's team, and what a team it was — the 1986 World Cup champion and a 1990 finalist. But when Maradona was banned from the 1994 World Cup in the United States after testing positive for drugs, the team didn't know what to do without him and was eliminated in the second round. Maradona was sent home in shame, his demise overshadowing Argentina's other players who wanted to excel in the United States but shortly would follow him home in disappointment. Argentines looked ahead to 1998, not knowing what to expect. This is Argentina's first World Cup team without Maradona since 1978.

Daniel Passarella was named Argentina's coach shortly after the 1994 Cup, and ever since it has been clear that Argentina's national team is Passarella's and his alone. In his own way, Passarella, dark-haired, a youthful 45, is almost as dominating a presence as Maradona was. As captain of Argentina's 1978 World Cup champion, Passarella was known as one of the most feared defenders in the game and a dominant personality. As a coach, he's expanded his take-no-prisoners reputation. He is viewed globally as a disciplinarian if not a dictator. His demands included that none of his players sport long hair or wear earrings.

Passarella also endured criticism from fans and media in the early stages of qualifying because his team performed poorly, and he kept changing players as if they were spare parts. Despite all of this, he has forged an Argentine team that could steal a third World Cup. It is quietly positioned behind defending champion Brazil, Germany, Italy and France (primarily because it's the home team). "If right now Argentina isn't favored to win the World Cup, we could still nonetheless do it," said Ariel Ortega, one of the world's great young players and Maradona's successor as attacking midfielder and No. 10 for Argentina.

Yet this Sunday, the summer solstice, will be the longest day of the year for Passarella. As it is in the United States, Sunday is Father's Day in Argentina. Passarella, whose team will face Jamaica here in Parc des Princes, may care less about winning that game and the World Cup than people realize. The reason: His 18-year-old son Sebastian died in a car accident in November 1995.

"If my son hadn't died I wouldn't have been able to withstand the criticism during the qualifying phase," Passarella said before the World Cup kickoff. "In the middle of qualifying, I had the misfortune of having a very serious setback, to lose a son. With the peace and the strength of my son from above, everything else was secondary for me. When my son died, my priorities were rearranged. I was able to withstand pitiless criticism, and then I realized soccer was not as important as we think."

But still he is known as El Kaiser in Argentina. He's tested the wills of the Argentine players. Some have acquiesced; others he left off the team.

For most of the qualifying games, Passarella virtually ignored Gabriel Batistuta, the striker who holds the record for goals for the national team. Batistuta even had his hair cut, to no avail. The way Passarella turned a cold shoulder to Batistuta, known as "Bati-gol," stunned much of Argentina. But in the end, Passarella had made his point; he established that he was in charge, not Batistuta, already an established star and friend of Maradona, who happens to be no buddy of Passarella.

But Fernando Redondo, a standout midfielder for Real Madrid, refused to give in to Passarella. Redondo would have been a starter. But their personalities collided, and one of their disputes was the length of Redondo's hair. "Perhaps in five or 10 years I will regret this, but certain things I won't compromise," Redondo said of his refusal to make amends with Passarella. "It looks like I will be watching the World Cup from my armchair." And so he will.

Another crisis occurred when Argentina played a rough game against Bolivia in La Paz. Two Argentines were sent off and the goalkeeper head-butted an opponent. The president of the Argentina soccer association was called before a committee inquiring about the incident. The team, coached by this disciplinarian, looked badly in need of discipline. It took some explaining by the soccer boss.

Passarella has taken a different philosophical tack from Carlos Bilardo — winning ugly was okay with him — and the lyrical Cesar Menotti; both coaches brought the World Cup to Buenos Aires. "I like teams that play fast and with precision, and that's not easy to do," Passarella said. "I don't identify with either Bilardo or Menotti."

As a player, Passarella had impressive leaping ability as a defender and a unique talent for moving forward and scoring. He scored 22 goals in 70 games with the national team. When he accepted the World Cup in 1978 it was from Gen. Rafael Videla, Argentina's military dictator. Some say his iron grip on the team is a throwback to that military era, which many thought to be the antidote following the often chaotic Maradona years. Passarella had played at River Plate in Buenos Aires before moving to Italy's Fiorentina and Inter Milan, where disciplined coaching made an impression on the man from the backwater town of Chacabuco.

Now he has been criticized for fielding a team that wins without enough panache for Argentine tastes, and of favoring players who were with him on the runner-up team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta or connected with River Plate. In France, he's curtailed access to the team to Argentine journalists. More than 300 flock regularly to the town of L'Etrat to little avail. He allows the media access on the FIFA-mandated minimum of twice before each game, and reportedly has hired private security to keep an eye on journalists. Sometimes, the home country media camps on a hill with a partial view of the practice field; one television channel has paid more than $3,000 for a month to a gas station to rent its roof for a better view.

"What have we done wrong during [my tenure]?" Passarella asked. "We've done a lot of things wrong. [Redondo was just one battle]. Perhaps we could have been more flexible. I have learned a lot. But the thing I have done is draw a line and stick to it."

Argentina has drawn the World Cup's easiest bracket, with three rookie countries. Japan already is out of the way, after Argentina's tight 1-0 victory. Croatia, the second-best team in the group, completes Argentina's first-round schedule June 26 in Bordeaux. It will be hard to make any serious judgments about Argentina until the round of 16, as Passarella attempts to join Germany's Franz Beckenbauer as the only man to have won the Cup as both captain and coach.

It will be impossible to know all of Passarella's thoughts Sunday, Father's Day. But at some point he will think of his son as he always does. "I would give up football, which is my life," he said, "if I could have another day with my son. Even another moment."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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