Imagine you are the coach of the team that has the best player on the planet on it and you can’t win any silverware. You draw up game plans, lineups, and strategies that revolve around that superstar, but he basically underperforms in relation to his routine club contributions. To add to the misery, you have a pretty good team, a top-10-in-the-world team, without your superstar. So, what is wrong?
That has been the fate of the managers of Argentina ever since Lionel Messi stepped onto the stage. Those managers have included Diego Maradona, Sergio Batista, Alejandro Sabella, Gerardo “Tata” Martino, Edgardo Bauza, Jorge Sampaoli, and now, since 2018, Lionel Scaloni. But there are two key things that differentiate the current coach from the previous six—first, there is the Copa America 2021 trophy (regardless of how it was won), and second, there is a palpable professional and personal chemistry among the players on the Argentine squad, something few other managers have, well, managed.
The trophy has calmed the waters, given Scaloni cover for any missteps, assuaged the fans and the Argentine Football Federation, put a smile on Messi and his troops, and the two cherries on top, the win was against archrivals Brazil and at their home. The chemistry is a bit harder to come by and has taken Scaloni and the many others who have contributed to the project the better part of four years to achieve, but they have succeeded. All that is left for the Lionels-squared to achieve is a World Cup trophy—allowing both of the namesakes to retire in glory, should they so choose.
But tying those two accomplishments into a single entity—the great playing pals who finally succeed at bringing home some silverware—is an alchemist’s folly. The players may well have bonded, but the Copa win, and for that matter, the Finalissima win were products of chicanery and good fortune respectively.
In the prior game, the Messi-coronation FIFA-CONMEBOL steamroller met with a mysteriously acquiescent CBF and the rest is sad history. In the second, Italy II, the post-Euro experimental side coach Roberto Mancini was tinkering with (the one without Euro starters Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, Marco Verratti, or Federico Chiesa), still controlled long stretches of the match and had a handful of early unrequited offensive forays. That is, until the 27th minute when against the run of play, a moment of Messi magic provided the assist for Martinez’s opening score.
At the 45th+1 the now-inspired Martinez led a beautiful breakaway and slotted the perfect through ball for Angel di Maria to exquisitely double the lead before the teams left the pitch for the locker rooms. Two chances, two goals, and against a purposely depleted, experimental side. Tyche was having her fun.
The final goal, the one that sealed what the media would go on to call a 3-0 shellacking, was a 90+4 goal where a five-player pile-up (three Italians and two Argentines) at the top of the Italian half-moon effectively dispossessed the dribbling Messi but expelled the ball perfectly into the path of any would-be left-footer to take a sitter shot from inside the box—enter left-footed substitute Paulo Dybala—and goal. The win was earned and deserved, but against a much lesser foe than the Lionels were willing to confess facing and by a score that did not fully, and thus accurately, encompass the on-pitch differences between continental champions.
That the Argentine team’s psyche has been positively impacted is the only unquestioned triumph of the recent stage of Scaloni’s tenure and that triumph is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the team is flying high and confidence in athletes is half the battle on the pitch, on the other hand, that high is fueled by pure fantasy and a sizeable dollop of good fortune, and when next they put their communal good feelings to the test the Argentines might find their opponents less pliable or impressed and Tyche less willing to intercede.
Scaloni’s Argentina, or better said, Messi’s team, are a true World Cup contender but with such an Achilles heel that their Qatari trip could tragically but predictably end as an Oedipal sojourn at their potential Samara-like appointment in Lusail Stadium at 2:00 p.m. on December 13th.
Photo: Lionel Scaloni, Shutterstock ID 1752870146, by Delmiro Junior.