How Estefania Banini’s creativity stymied Japan in Argentina’s first-ever World Cup point

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An inferior Argentina squad went toe-to-toe with a World Cup contender. It has Estefania Banini’s fearlessness to thank.

So many times during Monday’s World Cup match, Argentina held firm against flood after flood of Japan offensives, winning the ball somewhere in the box before sending it out to Estefania Banini on the left wing. Banini would drive the ball forward, and inevitably get swarmed by a horde of defenders.

Banini is one of those rare players who can puzzle defenders. What seem like sure tackles against her become traps of public embarrassment. But the sheer number of defenders who hounded her made sure she couldn’t conjure her usual magic. Instead, she bought as much time as possible, pushed the ball into Japan’s half, and tried to win throw-ins and fouls whenever there was nowhere else she could go.

This was Argentina’s plan all along en route to winning its first ever point at the World Cup in a 0-0 draw. The difference in quality between it and Japan was so massive that Argentina seemed less concerned about succeeding than surviving. And one of the most biggest keys to that mission was Banini, who used her creativity to frustrate rather than confuse.

Japan is a contender to win the World Cup, finished as runner-up in 2015, and won the whole thing in 2011. Argentina, meanwhile, lost three straight games in their appearance in 2007, including a record-setting 0-11 loss against Germany in the tournament opener. The problem for Argentina, as it is with many of the World Cup’s most underwhelming teams, is rooted in institutional sabotage and neglect. The women’s national team was inactive until two years ago, the Argentine Football Association showing no interest in funding and supporting a women’s team until that point.

It was only in April of this year that the AFA decided to professionalize women’s football in the country. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Argentina is lacking in quality, which is why they played so defensively. A style that worked to their credit.

Banini was clearly a higher caliber player than her teammates. While the others struggled to keep the ball, complete passes under pressure, or remain composed while trying to take the ball forward, Banini was only contained because Japan’s defenders were committed to stopping her, in turn killing any chance that Argentina could threaten going forward.

The match became Banini vs. The World, and Banini held her own. Soccer isn’t supposed to work like that — at least, not completely. But Banini knew what her objective was: keep the ball away from Japan, give her teammates a break from defending, and take up as much time as possible while looking for fleeting opportunities to do the impossible and score.

Playing to control the damage done by a superior opponent — the almost futile nature of the mission, often going one against three or four defenders — is a great way to see what a player is truly capable of. Not in how they play within a team, mind you, but what their limit is as an individual in terms of ability and stamina. While it’s a difficult burden to accept, Banini had total freedom to do whatever she wanted on the ball.

Her performance was full of runs where she would beat the first and second defender, only to be dispossessed by the third. She would be surrounded by three or four defenders, and find her way out with a nutmeg, a drop of the shoulder, or an Iniesta-like croqueta move. Even when she was tired towards the end of the match, she used her skill to bait defenders into fouling her, buying time for her team and giving herself a chance to catch her breath.

At one point near the end of the match, while moving the ball from one wing to the other and being chased by three defenders, Banini got careless (perhaps because she was exhausted) and gave up the ball. But before the defender could turn and play it to a teammate, Banini tackled her and won the ball back. Then she dribbled to the touchline, did a few step-overs, and passed back to a teammate, once again running precious seconds off the clock.

That Argentina won its first-ever point in the World Cup is a testament to a complete team performance. It managed to hold Japan to a draw it was organized, and everyone played their roles to perfection. But perhaps no one shined as brightly as Banini, who knew she would be hounded wherever she went.

It’s a testament to her singular ability that under such circumstances, as part of a spirited-but-underpowered team, she put on a show against one of the best teams in the world.

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