All fans have seen it on a frequent basis – after the team has scored, suddenly it is a different game. The ball is zipping around all over the field, the moves are flowing and suddenly, after seeming a desperately complicated affair before the deadlock was broken, football now looks like a simple game. It is the same players, on the same pitch, in the same game against the same opposition, but the whole atmosphere has changed.
It is all down to that magic word – confidence. The crowd have been lifted, the mood is up and suddenly everyone wants the ball. This was not necessarily the case when the going was tough – as Bobby Charlton once commented with typical wisdom, one of the easiest things to do on a football field is stand behind an opponent and effectively mark yourself out of the game.
After all, courage is not just a physical quality.
There is also moral courage – the capacity to take responsibility at difficult moments. Receiving possession at a crunch moment in front of a big crowd is one such. Not everyone can do it. Not everyone can play for a big team.
Plenty of players, with no lack of talent, have found it too much to deal with the pressures and expectations. They may have shone with smaller clubs, but when they hit the big time they have shirked away instead of seizing the moment.
Few clubs are bigger than Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors. The tradition is immense and the stadium – known as La Bonbonera, the chocolate box – is imposing because it seems to climb straight upwards, layer on top of layer, with the crowd close to the pitch. It intimidates the visitors, and can intimidate home players too if they are not mentally strong.
At the end of last year Boca completed the league and cup double. But 2016 began awkwardly. Their pre-season form was poor, with former club idol Juan Roman Riquelme remarking that at least there was a positive – the team could not play as badly once the competitive games got underway.
Perhaps. But they could play even worse. A tame 0-0 draw in the league debut at home to tiny Temperley was followed by a humiliating 4-0 thrashing by San Lorenzo in the final of the Super-Cup. Suddenly the crisis lights were flashing.
It seemed that the next game would be make or break for coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena. Another failure at home to lowly provincial Atletico Tucuman would force a change, said the local media. So when he walked off the field after a depressing 1-0 defeat, many thought that he would not be back.
As it turned out, he kept his job and bought some time – a 1-0 win away to San Martin was followed by a convincing return to form with a thumping 4-1 triumph at home to Newell’s Old Boys. Crisis averted.
Even at the darkest hour, when the final whistle blew on that defeat to Tucuman, there was something that should have warmed the worried heart of Arruabarrena.
His defensive midfielder is a youngster, 19 year-old Adrian Cubas. Son of a Paraguayan father, from the province of Misiones in the north of Argentina, Cubas has been at Boca since the age of 12. He is one of their own. He stands just 5 feet 4 inches high.
Half way through the first half his poor sideways pass had given away possession and presented Tucuman with the chance to launch an attack and score the only goal of the game.
There were still some 70 minutes left – plenty of time for Boca to get back into the match. Plenty of time, also, for the mood to get worse, with fans growing impatient and players becoming desperate. Boca responded, but attacked with more heat than light, and even after Tucuman had a player sent off with 10 minutes to go they were unable to find the breakthrough. Indeed, the clearest chance in the last few minutes was created by the visitors.
It was a match, then, that left little that was positive in the memory of Boca fans – apart, perhaps, from the moral courage of Cubas. He could have crumbled under the pressure, and hidden from the fray. Alternatively, he could have tried too hard to redeem his error and forgotten his basic function.
He did neither. Instead he stuck to his task, looking to win the ball and pass it quickly and accurately to a team-mate. He kept doing the very thing that can be hardest of all in this type of situation – the simple thing.
It was a pleasure to watch him play his way through his difficult afternoon. The match left the impression that Cubas may not go on to be world beater but that he has a solid future in the game. He was certainly solid for Boca mid-week in their Copa Libertadores debut, a 0-0 draw away to a dangerous Deportivo Cali side packed with fine Colombian youngsters.
Boca’s group is by no means straightforward. Their other rivals are Bolivar of Bolivia, semi-finalists two years ago who play their home games at the extreme altitude of La Paz. The other team is Racing, one of Boca’s historic local rivals. The two teams meet on Thursday night (local time). Should Boca be defeated then, with just one point from two games, the crisis lights will be flashing once more.
Such is football. Yet however grave the situation, the team can trust that their tiny defensive midfielder will not flee from the battlefield.