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SPORTS | 31-05-2024 13:27

Football isn’t always a young man’s game

Racing Club’s Gustavo Costas is overseeing a fine run of form at his beloved boyhood club and his formula is working like a charm.

Football is a young man's game, the saying goes, and it does seem that in recent years the sport has trended even more sharply towards youth, particularly in the dugout.

Gone are the days where grizzled, wrinkled legends of the game – Alfio ‘El Coco’ Basile, Reinaldo Merlo, the late, great César Menotti – would sit impassively on the bench, only rising to scream general words of encouragement at a flagging player or pick a fight with the fourth official. Most of the new generation look like they could still lace up their boots and lend a hand on the pitch themselves, and of course arrive at every job versed in tactical savvy and hi-tech analysis the likes of which their predecessors could only dream of.

But the oldies are not quite done. Over at Racing Club, Gustavo Costas, 61 years young and with two-and-a-half decades of coaching experience in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Chile and Mexico under his belt, is still fighting the good fight at his beloved boyhood club and, despite a few slips along the way, starting to raise hopes that 2024 may be a year to remember for La Academia.

Costas is by far the eldest of the five coaches who began the Liga Profesional de Fútbol in charge of the Grandes. He is 18 years the senior of River's Martín Demichelis and San Lorenzo boss Leandro Romagnoli; 16 years older than Diego Martínez at Boca; and more than two decades older than Carlos Tevez, who departed Independiente two games into the campaign.

League-wide, only four coaches – Banfield's Julio César Falcioni, Frank Kudelka of Huracán, Rosario Central's Miguel Ángel Russo and Lanús boss Ricardo Zielinski – have blown out more birthday candles than Costas, who began his third Racing spell in January and also spent the vast majority of his playing career on the blue side of Avellaneda. As a child he was adopted by Racing's great team of the 1960s as their unofficial mascot to walk out alongside the players before games: now, almost six decades later, he provides a link between the generation of Roberto Perfumo, Agustín Cejas, Basile and 'Chango' Cárdenas and Adrían Martínez, Maxi Salas, Juan Nardoni and the rest of the players powering Racing's 2024 aspirations.

On the touchline too he cuts a more dishevelled figure than his younger peers. Decked invariably in a tracksuit and with his hair dishevelled, Costas carries two sacred items: a rosary and stopwatch. He looks as if he has rushed straight from taking sprint drills on the training ground to the game itself, with no time for any unnecessary grooming for the cameras. And for now at least, despite a couple of bumps in the road, things seem to be going his way.

Racing have won their last four games in a row, scoring 13 without conceding a single goal. Stretching back to mid-March Costas' side boast a record of 11 wins in 14, the only black marks coming in a disappointing Copa Argentina defeat to Talleres de Remedios de Escalada, a loss to Red Bull Bragantino prompted by two goals conceded in the first seven minutes and a similar collapse against Belgrano to turn a 4-1 lead into a 4-4 tie in the blink of an eye. Those mental lapses aside, La Academia have been near-invincible this past month and a half, and currently sit top of the Liga Profesional while gaining easy passage to the last 16 of the Copa Sudamericana.

It is not always particularly subtle or easy on the eye. Racing's resurgence has been built heavily on the physical, dynamic forward pairing of Salas and Martínez, the latter more than earning his 'Maravilla' nickname with an incredible haul of 20 goals this term. The Costas philosophy is to get the ball to one of the deadly duo as frequently and as swiftly as possible, using the entire pitch and roving full-backs, the midfield often bypassed wholly. At its worst this abuse of the long ball can be near-soporific, not to mention taxing on opposing defenders' foreheads.

Nor is this a team which seeks total control of the ball and rapid recoveries, cornerstones of modern football thinking. In both their Liga wins to date Racing finished with considerably less possession than either Argentinos Juniors or Tigre while outgunning them throughout on the counter and still creating dozens of scoring chances. The formula is working like a charm right now, and after winning eight titles in four countries over his long career Costas could perhaps be forgiven for letting himself dream of pushing on and finally winning a crown at his beloved Academia, be it the Liga or in the Sudamericana – a fitting prize for one of Argentine football's most venerable figures proving he can still cut it against coaches 20 years his junior.

 

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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