Argentina is a curious case of a country. It has been the home of many legendary players, from Alfredo di Stéfano to Diego Armando Maradona. Nowadays, it’s fairly easy to point out important Argentine players in European clubs. The latest Champions League final had the presence of two: Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala. In the quarter finals, the rival team had two other Argentinians involved: Javier Mascherano and Lionel Messi, who has gone from Messiah to another godly figure. Other Argentines present in the tournament included Sergio Agüero and Pablo Zabaleta. The latest Europa League champion had Sergio Romero in charge of its goal posts.
It would be safe to say, therefore, that the country has maintained its status of producing world class talent. One might even risk saying that they have a particularly strong case to win the World Cup next year.
The problem is, they don’t.
The Argentinian question
We can’t let go of the fact that the majority of these players have managed to reach three finals back to back: the Brazil 2014 World Cup, the Chile 2015 Copa América, and the special edition Copa América Centenario, held in the United States in 2016. However, they’ve lost all of them, and due to very similar mistakes.
There was a deep sadness in 2014, but mixed with some pride among the general public. Hopes were placed in the following tournament, but were to be diminished as time went by. Messi proved to not just be key, but a need for the team.
Every final, whatever good development the team had throughout the tournament disappeared in the final stage, often leaving Messi on his own against the marking of several rival players against Chile. The performative differences between club and national team grew starker by every match, culminating in Messi temporarily quitting the team after the 2016 defeat.
The fault in the authorities
Things weren’t helped by the institutional crisis of the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino (AFA) was facing following the death of Julio Grondona, replacing previous operational corruption with incompetence. FIFA was giving warnings, and the only reason preventing a full intervention or possible disaffiliation was the possibility of having Messi in the World Cup, with all the revenue that would entail, including the possibility of an Argentina-Portugal showdown.
However, mismanagement wasn’t only affecting the standing of the association. Poor negotiations left Martino unable to count on players like Dybala for the Olympic football tournament, resulting in him quitting before the tournament began.
When Edgardo Bauza took hold of the team, Argentina was in the third position, with their World Cup presence seen as very likely. When he got sacked, eight matches and a new board later, Argentina was in the fifth position, classification hypothetically depending on a match against the best placed Oceanic national team. But that wasn’t the only issue.
The fault in the players
Lack of identity was rampant. The players couldn’t be recognized. The Messi-dependence increased as time went by. The possibility of losing to New Zealand or any other team from the very confederation Australia left a decade and a half ago to search for “competitiveness”, was more real than ever, especially if Lionel happened to either be injured or ineffective.
While the Messi questioners lost vocal power, doubt for players like Higuaín, Di María and Agüero to say a few names, increased. Fans wanted them to stop being called up. The alluded weren’t willing to quit. In Higuaín’s words, “they had reached three finals after all”. Agüero warned he’d be missed when his time came.
Taking the majority’s reaction on the national team’s social media comments, claimed would be a much accurate verb.
Given their history as soil for great players, it surprises the eye to see Argentina only have two World Cups to their name. It’s safe to say the sentiment is shared by Argentine’s themselves, except they can provide explanations, from corruption to subpar coaching staff or zombie players.
However, it doesn’t take away what is seen every weekend in club football. Having said this, the result is always cognitive dissonance. For example, compare the Higuaín who won the season MVP from Juventus with the one who missed goals at finals despite being in the perfect position.
Profile of a savior
The new board, led by Claudio Tapia, set their sights on the most successful Argentine coach to date; Jorge Sampaoli. After months of rumours and an eventual negotiation where Sampaoli himself paid his recession clause, the Tapia board confirmed the Santa Fe native as the new coach for the team on 1 June.
Sampaoli’s credentials, following his rise in Universidad de Chile between 2010 and 2012, were stellar. He built a successful group that was since carried over to the local national team, continuing the ascension of the greatest generation Chile has had so far.
The success was followed with a World Cup qualification, losing to Brazil in the round of 16, but not before eliminating Spain, then defending champions, in the group stage. With the defeat being questioned, there was no doubt between the players and their coach, as well as the people and their team. With a Copa América to be achieved soon after, things seemed to look up well for the team.
Except, as the FBI investigation into FIFA led to Sergio Jadue’s resignation, turmoil surrounded the Asociación Nacional de Fútbol Profesional (ANFP). As details pertaining his contract were released and some voices pointing out the irregular early run for the qualifiers, Sampaoli quit on January 19th, 2016.
With a Sevilla stint that stumbled in the Super Cup but otherwise had a strong start, the idea of Sampaoli lifting his first European title seemed plausible. Then came the elimination against Leicester, as well as a significant plummet in the league standings.
Finishing fourth, the team secured a position in the fourth round playoffs in the UEFA Champions League. However, they were trophy less, and their coach had spent the later days of the season toying with the Argentinian possibility.
Dream or nightmare
Eventually, the childhood dream came true, and Sampaoli, clinched his first win against Brazil in an international friendly. He’s given Mauro Icardi the chance long denied. He’s calling up good prospects who have either shown quality in the local tournament before hitting Europe this past season (Emmanuel Mammana) or are showing it (Lucas Alario). For the first time in a long time, Sergio Agüero wasn’t called up for reasons beyond injury. However, the possible starters seem to be a mixture of this. Higuaín, Di María and Romero are still in albiceleste.
It’s true he only has four matches to place Argentina in the World Cup. His contract, however, extends up to 2022, so there is hope for a project to establish itself. The coach seems willing. The player now need to respond.
Only time will tell if this last resort is what the team- and country- waited for and needed.