A curse on the songwriters Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber for that song ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’ from their hit musical ‘Evita’. That song has been one of the recurring themes of the World Cup as Argentina limped through the group stage with a draw against Iceland, a 0-3 defeat to Croatia and a 2-1 win over Nigeria, and it got another airing on Saturday as they crashed out of the World Cup following a 3-4 defeat to France.
There had been hopes in Argentina that the Marcos Rojo’s late goal against Argentina would be a turning point; a footballing line in the sand that would allow Argentina to press on and show their true footballing selves, reports Xinhua news agency.
Unfortunately for Argentina and coach Jorge Sampaoli, that is what they did.
That goal against Nigeria wasn’t the reality of what this Argentina side are, it was the exception and after a brave first half in which they sacrificed a forward in an attempt to swamp the midfield, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and company showed the ugly truth: Argentina are a side built around Lionel Messi and when he doesn’t function, there is nobody else to pick up the pieces.
“We have the best player in the World, we tried to surround him and to be close to him and we did in some moments,” said Sampaoli after the defeat (which was much clearer than the final score suggests).
The problem is he surrounded him with players such as Javier Mascherano and Enzo Perez and although you might win a fight with that duo beside you, you most certainly are not going to win the World Cup.
It’s not Mascherano’s fault he came to Russia aged 33, after 5 months playing in China and in obvious decline, while Perez left Valencia a year ago with the club prepared to lose a staggering 30 million euros on what they paid for him, it’s the coach’s fault for playing them.
Sampaoli was unforgivably reluctant to start Ever Banega, only putting the playmaker into the side after a rumoured dressing room revolt, while Paulo Dybala, arguably one of Argentina’s most talented players, spent most of the tournament watching from the sidelines along with Gonzalo Higuain.
Higuain may have his detractors, but he would have been useful against France, pressing up the pitch and providing a challenge for the French central defenders, while Sergio Aguero actually showed what a threat he can be with Argentina’s third goal (from a Messi pass).
Although the supporting cast were poor and Argentina would have struggled to have won the World Cup even with Messi at his best, it’s obvious Messi was below par: whether he was tired after a long season helping to carry FC Barcelona to a Spanish domestic double, or simply knew it was a hopeless task after dragging his country to two Copa America finals and also to Russia, there was little spark in him.
Stats showed he covered around 24 kilometres in Argentina’s first three matches (compare that to Danish attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen’s 36 kilometres)… That means Messi was literally playing at walking pace…. And still he was the focal point of all Argentina’s football.
Maybe in time we will discover why Messi was below his best, maybe we will understand why Sampaoli, previously a lover of attacking football, seemed to betray his footballing beliefs, maybe the coach knew deep inside he just didn’t have the talent available to him and that is the big worry.
Argentina has so long been a breeding ground for great footballers, a country that has the game in its soul, with a seemingly unending factory of young talent. If that talent has suddenly dried up they are in real trouble and not Messi, nor Dybala, nor Aguero can save them from a spell in the World Cup wilderness.
Now is not the time for Argentina to look for blame, it is the moment to look for a solution.