Champions of the world: Argentina's sporting miracle

Great Britain's thumping in the Davis Cup at the weekend was only the latest in a long line of recent triumphs by Argentina's sportsmen. In the first of a two-part series, Paul Newman in Buenos Aires examines how such an economically challenged country is able to dominate so many areas of top-level competition

Tuesday 12 February 2008 01:00 GMT

In the intimidating amphitheatre of the Parque Roca here in the southern suburbs of the Argentinian capital, David Nalbandian and company are putting Britain's tennis players to the sword in the Davis Cup. Less than 200 metres away, at Jose-Luis Clerc's academy, 13-year-old Ayrton Silva is taking a break from six hours of practice. A former No 2 at national under-12 level, he names Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as his favourite players. "I want to be a professional like them, but I know I will have to work hard," he says.

Clerc, who employs seven coaches to teach the 500 children who regularly attend his academy, likes the fact that Ayrton's parents have never put pressure on him. "He has an unbelievable competitive spirit," the former world No 4 adds. "My only worry is that it comes too easy for him. He can do anything he wants with the racket. He might just become too lazy."

Sport comes easy to most people here. Without the financial advantages of so many of the world's leading sporting nations, Argentina is producing an ever-increasing number of champions across a whole range of sports.

Football has long been king in this corner of the planet and the 1978 and 1986 World Cup winners have always exported their greatest talents to the game's biggest clubs, but Argentines are now taking other stages by storm. The golfer Angel Cabrera won last year's US Open, Argentines swamp the men's world tennis rankings, Manu Ginobili is one of the big names of American basketball and even the country's rugby union players went further than the All Blacks in finishing third in last year's World Cup.

"Meat and potatoes" is one of the explanations offered by Charlie Epps. The American golf coach, who worked with Cabrera before his triumph at Oakmont, has lived and worked in Argentina and has been visiting the country for many years. "They have the sort of diet that breeds very strong people physically," he said.

"Having a great climate helps and their sporting traditions are also a huge factor. I don't think there's any other country in the world that's as mad about sport as Argentina. Take a stroll through Buenos Aires and you'll see kids playing football or tennis in every park. They're feisty, they're great competitors.

"I remember taking Dick Harmon, Butch's brother, there one year. We were standing at the back of the driving range just before we held a clinic and we were watching the golf pros at work. Dick said to me: 'Charlie, there's not a single swing fault in Argentina.' Watching those pros you could see they all had lovely swings. I think a lot of it is to do with football. They use their feet first and their hands second. Most of the Argentine players have a lovely natural rhythm."

While Spain and Italy provided most of Argentina's people, it was the British who established sport here. The Buenos Aires Rugby and Cricket Club is reckoned to be the oldest sporting club in South America and is still a major force in rugby, while the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club is staging an ATP tennis tournament this week. The names of many of the leading football clubs – Boca Juniors, River Plate, Newell's Old Boys and Arsenal among them – reveal their roots.

Today, sport gives Argentina the chance to reinforce its modern identity. "They see themselves as underdogs," Epps said. "Sometimes they're treated like a third world country and they resent that."

While schools provide some physical education, children play their sport in the clubs that are the focus of almost every community here. Facilities are often basic, but access is not usually a problem. Britain, with a population of 60 million, has about 35,000 tennis courts; Argentina, with a population of 38 million, has 200,000. Rugby union might be a poor relation to some other sports here, but there are 84 rugby clubs in the capital alone. Sport is also affordable, even for the 25 per cent who live below the poverty line.

Carlos Tevez, now earning millions at Manchester United, was brought up in the so-called Fort Apache neighbourhood (the name was coined after a police shoot-out), which is one of the most deprived areas of Buenos Aires, but was able to learn his game at the local Santa Clara club, where qualified coaches put the emphasis on technique and ball control.

"Our sporting clubs are very strong," Martin Jaite, Nalbandian's coach, said. "They're at the centre of many of our communities. It's nothing to do with Governments. It's what the people do for themselves." If Australia can stake a strong claim as the world's most successful sporting nation pound-for-pound, Argentina surely has no peers on a peso-for-peso basis, with minimal financial support provided from central resources.

Tennis is typical. The national federation runs on an annual budget of just £750,000 and does not own any premises, let alone a tennis court. The national tennis centre is housed in a private club 30 miles outside Buenos Aires. Eighty per cent of the tennis federation's resources come from Davis Cup revenue, the rest from subscription fees and sponsors. In Britain, the Lawn Tennis Association's income last year was more than £43m, of which £26.3m was provided by the surplus from Wimbledon.

The Argentine federation is rarely able to offer financial support to juniors, but Jaite believes that only reinforces the players' determination to succeed.

"In other countries you might think that being given an air ticket to travel to a tournament is normal, but in Argentina you treat it like a trophy," he said. "And when you travel to that tournament you make sure you play your absolute best. You know you might not get another chance."

Daniel Spatz, who has been coaching tennis for 26 years, said: "The kids are hungry. They want to succeed. They fight for every ball. It's a national characteristic. They train with a lot of intensity. You see it across all sports in Argentina.

"The country has been through a lot of financial difficulties over the last 10 years and I think a lot of people see sport as a way out of their problems."

Playing the game: The sports in which Argentina display the power of the pampas on world stage

Rugby Union: World Cup impact

The Pumas have been a growing force for many years and, led by captain Agustin Pichot, finally made their breakthrough at the 2007 World Cup in France. After shocking the hosts in the opening game, they went on to beat them again in the third place play-off to record their greatest triumph in the sport.

The game is completely amateur in Argentina and most of the best players play professionally elsewhere, particularly in Europe. Crowds at domestic matches are small, with the biggest derby matches rarely attracting gates of more than 2,000, but the World Cup success could spark a surge of interest when the domestic season opens next month.

Tennis: Nalbandian leads the 12 disciples of Vilas

Guillermo Vilas, a former world No 2 and three-times a Grand Slam champion, fired Argentine interest in tennis as he won 62 titles between 1973 and 1983. Jose-Luis Clerc, who became world No 4 and won 25 titles, took up the mantle, but in terms of sheer numbers the current generation of Argentines are the most successful.

Only France can beat Argentina's total of 12 players in the top 100 of the men's rankings, headed by David Nalbandian (No 9), Guillermo Canas (13) and Juan Monaco (14). Of the current players Nalbandian has come closest to winning a Grand Slam singles titles, having reached the 2002 Wimbledon final.

Gabriela Sabatini, who won the US Open singles title in 1990 and claimed silver at the 1988 Olympics, is the country's most successful female player. However, there are only two Argentines in the top 100 of the women's rankings, Gisela Dulko (No 43) and Maria Emilia Salerni (No 89).

Football: Exodus fails to stop flow of talent

Like Brazil, their eternal rivals, Argentina are one of the great football nations. Participants in the first World Cup in 1930, they have missed only four subsequent tournaments and have played in every one since 1974. Argentina claimed their first World Cup on home soil in 1978 and, inspired by Diego Maradona, won a second eight years later.

Fourteen times Copa America champions, they have also won the Fifa Under-20 world championship on eight occasions and took Olympic gold in Athens four years ago. Nearly all the best Argentines play their club football abroad, the current generation spearheaded by Lionel Messi at Barcelona and Carlos Tevez at Manchester United. Despite the exodus, the country continues to produce a flow of fine young talent.

Basketball: Ginobili rules

Manu Ginobili, who plays for San Antonio Spurs in the National Basketball Association, is one of the biggest names in Argentine sport.

Basketball has always been popular in Argentina, who hosted (and won) the first world championshjp in 1950. Argentina won the gold medal in Athens four years ago as Ginobili inspired the country to their first team triumph in any sport since polo was an Olympic sport.

The breakthrough into the NBA began when Juan "Pepe" Sanchez made his debut for Atlanta Hawks eight years ago. Ginobili is one of six Argentines playing in the NBA. The others are Andrés Nocioni (Chicago Bulls), Fabricio Oberto (San Antonio Spurs), Luis Scola (Houston Rockets) and Carlos Delfino and Walter Hermann (both Detroit Pistons).

Motor Sport: Fangio the best ever

Motor sport is big in all its forms in Argentina, though it is a while since they had a serious interest in Formula One. Juan-Manuel Fangio, who died in 1995, is regarded by many as the greatest driver in the history of the sport and only Michael Schumacher beat his tally of five world championships.

Carlos Reutemann was a major contender for many years, but never won the title. His best chance came in 1981 when Nelson Piquet overhauled him in the final race at Las Vegas. Argentina no longer stages a grand prix and it is many years since it last had a driver competing in Formula One.

Golf: South America's fairway fliers

Roberto de Vicenzo, who held off the challenge of Jack Nicklaus to win the Open at Hoylake in 1967, remains a celebrated figure in Argentina, where golf is particularly popular among the middle and upper classes. The sport was introduced by the British, who were invited to build Argentina's railways and constructed golf courses alongside them.

Angel Cabrera won the 2007 US Open and Argentina could easily have claimed two of the year's majors had Andres Romero kept his game together in the final round at the Open. Cabrera, Romero and Jose Coceres are regulars on the PGA tour in America, where Eduardo Romero is also very successful on the seniors tour, while there are a host of Argentines playing in Europe, including Ricardo Gonzalez, three times a winner on the circuit, and Daniel Vancsik and Ariel Canete, who both won tournaments last year.

Hockey: Import from Britain becomes Olympic success

British expatriates introduced hockey to Argentina, with the first recorded match played exactly 100 years ago. Years of steady progress have been rewarded with some outstanding results in the last decade.

The national women's team won silver at the Sydney Olympics and bronze in Athens, finished runners-up behind the Netherlands in last year's Champions Trophy and are the reigning Pan-American Games champions.

The men finished 11th at the Athens Olympics and were second behind Canada at the 2007 Pan-American Games. Current junior world champions, they just missed out last week on qualifying for Beijing.

Polo: Best riders in the world

Argentines are regarded as the world's most accomplished polo players and are in demand around the world. Although the polo circuit is limited, there is good money to be made by the best players. Polo has not been an Olympic sport since the Second World War, but it holds regular world championships. Argentina last won the title in 1998. They competed in the 2001 and 2004 tournaments but were unplaced.

Athletics? Forget it

With pure speed generally not an Argentine strength, the country has had limited success over the years in some of the major Olympic sports.

Argentina finished 38th in the medals table at the Athens Olympics four years ago. Their male footballers, with Carlos Tevez leading the way, and basketball players both won gold, but their only other medals were four bronzes: Georgina Bardach in the women's 400m individual medal swimming, Paola Suarez and Patricia Tarabini in the women's tennis doubles, Santiago Lange and Carlos Espinola in sailing's Tornado class and the women's hockey team.

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