Former Argentina Captain Daniel Passarella was appointed as the Argentina National Team Manager following the 1994 World Cup, replacing Alfio Basile.
It was the start of the Post-Maradona era for the National Team and Passarella set about creating a team in his own image of a strict disciplinarian.
Upon taking charge he set a number of directives for his players, such as requiring players to have short hair and not to eat red meat.
Photo From: Don Balon, Edicion Chile, Issue 254, April 15-21, 1997(Argentina Manager Daniel Passarella)
In his first year, he attempted to rejuvenate the National Team with ypoung players by including the likes of newcomers Javier Zanetti and Chsrian Bassedas. He nevertheless still relied upon established players such as Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Simeone.
The team participated in the 1995 Confederations Cup and Copa America.
Naturally, the objective was to prepare a squad for the 1998 World Cup.
In a break with tradition, Conmebol changed the format of World Cup qualifications. Before the teams were put in groups containing no more than 3 or 4 teams and in a round robin format. The matches would be played within a month or so of one another.
But for the 1998 World Cup, all the teams were to play one another on home and away basis. This marathon of qualifying matches would take almost a year and a half. As a result, these qualifiers were to start in April 1996, full two years before the main event.
Passarella was adamantly opposed to this idea and even later stated that had he known this would be the format, he would have never taken charge of the National Team.
His other opposition was in playing matches at the high altitudes of Bolivia and Ecuador. Most opposed playing under those conditions due to medical reasons.
He became even more furious when his own FA President Julio Grondona publicly supported and voted on Bolivia’s bid to play their home matches at Lapaz.
Argentina’s qualification Matches (as well as that of the continent) started vs. Bolivia at the ‘El Monumental’ on April 24th,1996.
Passarella surprisingly recalled veteran Claudio Caniggia (now with Boca Juniors). It appeared he had dispensation from Passarella for still having long hair.
In any case, Bolivia were no match for the superior Argentines and the (3-1) scoreline, with a double strike from Ariel Ortega and one from Batistuta, was no surprise.
Photo From: World Soccer, July 1996
(Ariel Ortega, April 24, 1996, World Cup Qualifier, Argentina 3-Bolivia 1)
A running theme in Passarella’s management of the National Team was in finding and settling on a starting goalkeeper.
Oscar Passet of San Lorenzo played vs. Bolivia, but it would be his only match, as Passarella’s search would continue.
Next up was Argentina’s first away qualifier at Ecuador. Passarella’s concern for the altitude was vindicated in their poor performance and surprising loss (0-2) at Quito.
Carlos Bossio of Estudiantes started as goalkeeper and just like Passet, this would be his only match as well.
Alberto Montaño shot Ecuador ahead, early in the second half and then Eduardo Hurtado killed off Argentina’s hopes with a last minute strike.
Photo From: El Grafico, Issue 4000, 1996
(June 2, 1996, World Cup Qualifier, Ecuador 2-Argentina 0)
This match would be an indicator of Argentina’s struggles away from home and it would take some time for his team to acquire enough strength and character to triumph abroad.
Next up was Peru at Lima on July 7th, 1996. Argentina had bad memories of trips to Lima, such as missing out on the 1970 World Cup as well as the vicious treatment that Maradona received in 1985.
This was no different and Argentina struggled to make any headway and settled with a scoreless tie.
Argentina started its third match with a different goalkeeper. German Burgos of River Plate was installed as the number one. Argentina missing Batistuta, suffered the first half sending off of Abel Balbo.
Claudio Caniggia also played his last match for Passarella.
Photo From: El Grafico, Issue 4005, 1996(July 7, 1996, World Cup Qualifier, Peru 0-Argentina 0)
After participating in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta with essentially its ‘A’ squad (finishing with a Silver Medal), Argentina returned to the serious task of qualifying in September.
Argentina took on Paraguay at Buenos Aires on September 1st.
Argentina were expected to win at home and Batistuta shot them ahead midway through the first half.
For once, Passarella had persevered with the same goalkeeper (Burgos).
However, just before halftime, Paraguay’s fiery goalkeeper-Captain took a free kick and scored against his counterpart.
Argentina could not get back into the game and the (1-1) scoreline was a key dropped point at home.
Photo From: Don Balon, Chile Edition, September 3-9, 1996, Issue no 221(Jose chilavert scoring from s free kick, September 1, 1996, World Cup Qualifier, Argentina 1-Paraguay 1)
Burgos would be the scapegoat and not start the next match. Already after only four matches, Argentina’s position looked precarious, as they had only managed a single win.
The match also marked the debut of Juan Sebastian Veron who would go one of the lynchpins of Passarella and the Argentina National Team.
Argentina’s fifth qualifier was at San Cristobal vs. Venezuela on October 9th, 1996. Venezuela were the weakest of the South American Nations and a win was a formality even away.
Argentina naturally won (5-2) with goals by Ortega, Sorin, Simeone, Hugo Morales and José Albornoz.
Pablo Cavallero of Velez Sarsfield became Passarella’s fourth goalkeeper of the qualifiers and just like Burgos in the previous match, he was guilty of letting in a goal from a free kick from a goalkeeper (Rafael Dudamel of Venezuela).
Photo From: El Grafico, Issue 4019, 1996(October 9, 1996, World Cup Qualifier, Venezuela 2-Argentina 5)
Nevertheless, Passarella held onto him and started with him in Argentina’s next qualifier at Buenos Aires vs. Chile on December 15th, 1996.
Argentina fell behind early in the second half through a Fernando Cornejo strike in the 51st minute. Batistuta managed to even the score in the 70th through a penalty kick. But just like the match vs. Paraguay, Argentina were unable to break down Chile and had to settle for a (1-1). It was another dropped point at home and pressure was mounting on Passarella.
Photo From: Onze-Mondial, Issue 96, January 1997
(December 15, 1996, World Cup Qualifier, Argentina 1-Chile 1)
The New Year (1997) was just as same as Argentina managed a scoreless tie at the Centenario vs. Uruguay on January 12th. New Year, New Match and of course a new goalkeeper as Ignacio Carlos Gonzalez of Racing Club became Passarella’s fifth choice as goalkeeper in less than a year.
Photo From: El Grafico, Issue 4032, 1997
(January 12, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Uruguay 0-Argentina 0)
Photo From: El Grafico, Issue 4032, 1997
(Argentina Manager Daniel Passarella, January 12, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Uruguay 0-Argentina 0)
One of the main absentees from Passarella’s selections had been Real Madrid midfielder Fernando Redondo.
Many believed his exclusion was based on his refusal to cut his long hair. However, according to Passarella his exclusion was based on the player’s insistence on only playing in central midfield and not on the left side.
Some overtures were made to re-integrate him, however, on January 22nd, Redondo rejected the opportunity to play for Argentina and a month later would declare that he would refuse to play for the National Team while Passarella remained in charge.
The following month, for their ninth qualifying match, Argentina got a reprieve with a surprising win at Colombia.
Colombia had been running away in the qualifiers and seemed headed to qualify.
For that match at Bogota on February 12th , Argentina once again started with Ignacio Carlos Gonzalez in the net. Passarella made the surprising decision to discard Gabriel Batistuta. In his place, Hernan Crespo started as the number nine.
Argentina took the lead in the 9th through a fluke goal. Claudio Lopez sent a seemingly harmless cross in the box. Colombia goalkeeper Farid Mondragon wrongly judged that the ball would go out, however, the ball trickled in the net to give the Argentines the lead. The Argentines held onto the lead and gained a much needed away win against one of the contenders.
Photo From: El Grafico, Issue 4032, 1997(February 12, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Colombia 0-Argentina 1)
Photo From: Onze-Mondial, Issue 98, March 1997
(February 12, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Colombia 0-Argentina 1)
The next qualifier was at the feared altitude of Lapaz set for April 2nd. Passarella set up an altitude training camp and called up many local newcomers as early as March.
Once again there was no place for Batitsuta in the lineup come matchday, Julio Cruz took his place as striker.
In what was a weakened squad only a handful of foreign-based players appeared for Argentina.
It was a match to forget for Argentina as they lost (1-2) in an ill-tempered match that saw Nelson Vivas and Gustavo Zapata sent off.
Photo From: Don Balon, Chile Edicion, Issue 253, April 8-14, 1997
(April 2, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Bolivia 2-Argentina 1)
For the third and final time Ignacio Carlos Gonzalez started in the net for Argentina as Passarella was still not satisfied with his options in goal.
Les than a month later, on April 30th, Argentina faced Ecuador at ‘El Monumental.’
This eleventh qualifying match would in some ways be the turning point and reference match in Argentina’s fortunes.
Batistuta was discarded for the third match in a row, as Passarella appeared to have confidence in the youthful Crespo, who was having a very good debut season in Italy with Parma.
Passarella also chose to install Carlos Roa of Lanus as his starting goalkeeper.
Roa would turn out to be the goalkeeper that Passarella was looking for and remain the starting goalkeeper into the World Cup.
Argentina defeated Ecuador (2-1) through goals by Ortega and Crespo and started its recovery.
Photo From: World Soccer, December 1997
(Juan Sebastian Veron, April 30, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Argentina 2-Ecuador 1)
Along with Roa, Passarella appeared to be settling on a nucleus containing Ayala, Chamot, Sensini in defense with Simeone, Veron, Ortega, Crespo and Claudio Lopez in midfield and upfront.
The recovery continued in their next and 12th qualifier vs. Peru in Buenos Aires. Passarella’s newly settled side defeated Peru (2-0) with goals by Crespo and Simeone.
Photo From: El Grafico, Issue 4053, 1997
(June 8, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Argentina 2-Peru 0)
Argentina took on qualifying group leaders Paraguay at Asuncion on July 6th, 1997 for its thirteenth qualifier. Argentina had struggled against them at home just months earlier but the team now instilled with more confidence, defeated their hosts (2-1) with goals by Marcelo Gallardo and Veron.
Argentina was now just one point Paraguay in the Group standings.
Photo From: El Grafico, Issue 4057, 1997(July 6, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Paraguay 1-Argentina 2)
Just two weeks later on July 20th, Argentina took on Group minnows Venezuela for their Fourteenth qualifier and predictably won (2-0) with goals by Cresp and Pablo Paz.
The victory gave them the Group leadership for the first time in the qualification race.
Photo From: HISTORIA DE LA SELECCION ARGENTINA (EL GRAFICO, 1997)\FASCICULO 10
(Roberto Sensini, July 20, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Argentina 2-Venezuela 0)
They would consolidate their position in their next qualifier at Santiago vs. Chile on September 10th.
Just like Paraguay, they had struggled against their opponents on their home fixture, but now Argentina were the favorites and in better form.
Just like the match vs. Paraguay, the Argentines won (2-1) through goals by Gallardo and Claudio Lopez and qualified for the World Cup.
Photo From: HISTORIA DE LA SELECCION ARGENTINA (EL GRAFICO, 1997)\FASCICULO 10
(Daniel Passarella celebrating, September 10, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Chile 1-Argentina 2)
Argentina had two matches left in their qualification program and could afford to let their foot off the pedal.
They faced Uruguay at ‘El Monumental’ on October 12th and just like the match in January it ended scoreless.
Photo From: El Grafico, Issue 4071, 1997(October 12, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Argentina 0-Uruguay 0)
For its final and eighteenth qualifier on November 16th vs. Colombia, Passarella decided to recall Gabriel Batistuta. He had been in fine form for his club Fiorentina and Passarella was determined to show that he was not out of his plans.
Argentina played for the first time outside of ‘El Monumental’ and played at Boca Juniors’ ‘La Bombonera’.
Passarella also took the occasion to hand out a substitute debut appearance to Juan Roman Riquelme.
The inconsequential match ended (1-1) .Carlos Valderrama gave the Colombians the lead in the 10th minute.
Fernando Caceres replied for Argentina in the 69th minute to close out Argentina’s qualifiers.
Photo From: El Grafico, Issue 4076, 1997
(November 16, 1997, World Cup Qualifier, Argentina 1-Colombia 1)
Passarella and Argentina had started the qualifiers hesitantly without seemingly a settled lineup. They had ended it confidently in strength despite ignoring Batistuta, their most consistent goalscorer of his era.
They looked to the World Cup in France in 1998 with confidence.
By then Batistuta was back in favor and knocking in the goals.
Passarella and Argentina advanced from the first round in the World Cup after victories over Japan (1-0), Jamaica (5-0) and Croatia (1-0). In the second round, they eliminated England in an epic penalty kick shoot-out after a (2-2) tie.
They finally succumbed to the magic of Dennis Bergkamp in the quarterfinals as Holland defeated them (1-2).
Passarella resigned afterwards after four years in charge.
The qualification format that he despised had in some ways helped him mold a team by introducing players gradually.
Many of his selected players would go on to serve Argentina well into the next decade.