Argentina stalwarts left to rue golden chance
Argentina's loss to Germany in the World Cup final may have represented the last opportunity for the country's storied '2005 generation' to claim the sport's biggest prize.
The backbone of the side that went down 1-0 in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday first came together at the 2005 Under-20 World Cup in the Netherlands, where Argentina beat Nigeria 2-1 in the final.
There were six members of that team in coach Alejandro Sabella's World Cup squad: captain Lionel Messi, striker Sergio Aguero, defenders Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay, and midfielders Fernando Gago and Lucas Biglia.
All were on the pitch when substitute Mario Goetze volleyed home Germany's winner deep into extra time at the Maracana, and all will be 30 or over by the time of the next World Cup.
While that does not preclude them from enjoying success in Russia, the 2014 tournament was supposed to be their crowning glory.
At 33, centre-back Martin Demichelis has almost certainly played in his last World Cup, while 29-year-olds Zabaleta and Ezequiel Lavezzi may not be around in four years' time either.
Inspirational midfielder Javier Mascherano, meanwhile, will be 34. As he admitted prior to the final: "This is my third World Cup. Maybe it will be my best last one."
Further compounding the sense of a missed opportunity is the fact that Argentina's next generation has nowhere near the same depth of talent.
When a side built around Aguero won the 2007 Under-20 World Cup in Canada, it was the fifth time in seven tournaments that Argentina had taken the title.
But they failed to qualify in 2009 and 2013, and fell in the quarter-finals in 2011.
Where Argentina have succeeded in producing exciting young talents in recent years, they have often struggled to establish themselves, with Erik Lamela an illustrative example.
- 'Build for the future' -
An exceptionally skilful left-footed attacker, Lamela left River Plate for Roma at the age of 19 and last year joined Tottenham Hotspur in a deal worth up to Â£30 million ($51.4 million, 37.8 million euros), but he all but disappeared from sight in his first season at White Hart Lane.
Young forwards such as Inter Milan's Mauro Icardi, Juan Iturbe of Verona and Racing's Luciano Vietto offer hope for the future, but the conveyor belt of talent that has sustained the country over the last decade seems to have ground to a halt.
There is also uncertainty over the position of Sabella, who refused to be drawn on his future in the aftermath of Sunday's game.
"My immediate future is to be with the players, the technical team and my family, and rest for a while," he said.
"I don't know what else to say about my future."
Having confirmed their status as South America's outstanding team, Argentina will embark upon next year's Copa America in Chile with high hopes of winning the tournament.
Goalkeeper Sergio Romero was eager to draw the positives from his side's performances in Brazil, asserting that Argentina have "a great team".
"On the base we have now, we can build for the future," he added.
"We need to focus again on the things we did well and can repeat, and what we did badly so we can improve."
But as Mascherano admitted, a World Cup final is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"The pain will be there for life," he said. "Because this was our chance."
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