Splitting a Pair

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DANIEL GARCIA/AFP

Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta slides past the goalkeeper to score against the local Kashima Antlers in Japan

Marcelo Bielsa, Argentina's cerebral coach, has spent a great deal of his time lately staring at the ground. This is not the defensive, deferential gesture of a shy man reluctant to look you in the eye. No, this is the intense, searching gaze of a man who expects at any moment to find something valuable—treasure, car keys, enlightenment—two feet in front of his shoes. As his World Cup squad played back-to-back friendly matches against Japanese club sides last Tuesday, Bielsa paced along the sideline, glaring at the carefully manicured grass like some demented botanist.

Forgive him for appearing distracted. Bielsa, 46, was searching for the answer to a conundrum that would make even a brave man bury his head in the sand. In the next five days, he would have to leave one of two outstanding strikers—Gabriel Batistuta or Hernan Crespo—on the bench. The pair would make any rational list of the five best goal scorers in the world, and either man would find a place on any other World Cup team. But Bielsa's game strategy won't accommodate a pair of out-and-out strikers. There can be only one.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]In a Highlander movie, the two men would fight to the death—but dueling wasn't among Bielsa's options. Finally on Saturday, he announced his decision at J-Village, Argentina's sylvan training base in the lush countryside of Fukushima prefecture: Batistuta would start Sunday's campaign-opener against Nigeria. It was a choice he could only have made with a heavy heart, and the knowledge that he had outraged half of his 37 million countrymen.

Bielsa can at least take comfort in the knowledge that his peers are suffering too. For the 32 coaches who have assembled their players in Korea and Japan, the week before the tournament was all about making excruciating selections, picking a team of 11 from a squad of 23. Spain's José Antonio Camacho had to choose from 10—yes, 10—midfielders. Even Team USA, with its modest resources, presented coach Bruce Arena with a quandary: Kasey Keller or Brad Friedel in goal?

But it's a fair bet that none of his 31 rivals had to make a judgment call as tough as the one that confronted Bielsa. The question has consumed Argentina for months on end, splitting the soccer-mad nation down the middle. "It's not possible to have a conversation about football and not get into a raging argument about Batistuta versus Crespo," said Guillermo Resnik, 26, an accountant from Buenos Aires who backpacked his way across Asia before arriving in Japan in time for the World Cup. "Half the people, the sentimentals, want Batistuta. The rest of us know Crespo is the right choice."

For their part, both players have discreetly avoided mentioning the topic; by all accounts, they enjoy a cordial relationship in the locker room, despite the efforts of Argentina's media to goad them into a bloodier rivalry. Bielsa, understandably, is fed up with fielding Batistuta-or-Crespo questions at every press conference. In the run-up to the Cup, he agreed to address the issue only once at any length. Even then, after outlining their relative strengths, the coach concluded, "It's a difficult choice." Thanks for the insight, Marcelo.

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