It may be that next week Argentina looks back on this qualification campaign and regards it as a painful but necessary process. The national team now has, in Jorge Sampaoli, the coach it probably should have had all along and, provided it does reach Russia, the means by which it got to that point may in time come to seem largely unimportant. But it may be that in a week, Argentinian football is trying to come to terms with its first failure to qualify for the World Cup in 48 years. That was embarrassing enough in 1969. To fail to reach an expanded tournament with Lionel Messi in the side would be abject.
At the moment, Argentina sits fifth in the CONMEBOL table, good enough for a playoff against New Zealand. Uruguay in second place in the standings, is just three points above Argentina, but Ecuador, in eighth, is just four behind. Realistically, four points from a home game against an improving Peru and a match at altitude away to a fading Ecuador should be enough to secure an automatic berth. But nobody in Argentina is unaware that it was a 2-2 draw at home to Peru that cost it its place at the 1970 World Cup. Nor is anybody unaware of how well-organized Peru will be. It is, after all, managed by the Argentinian Ricardo Gareca, who led an uncompromising Velez Sarsfield team to three league titles between 2009 and 2012.
Yet it’s baffling that Argentina is even in such a position. This, after all, is a nation that can select not only Messi, but also Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala. Perhaps only France can boast such an array and depth of attacking talent.
There is a sense, perhaps, that that has been part of the problem, that the temptation for a series of coaches has been to try to pack in as much of the attacking talent as possible and that balance has been lost as a result. But, as Sampaoli acknowledged, the issue now is mental as much as anything. Argentina has not won a senior international trophy since 1993. It lost in the final of the Copa America in 2004, 2007 and 2015, in the final of the Copa America Centenario in 2016 and in the final of the 2014 World Cup. Lionel Messi, after that defeat in 2016, spoke of feeling “cursed” before briefly retiring from international football.
Gerardo Martino, who oversaw the Copa America campaigns of 2015 and 2016, also resigned after that final amid a general perception that he lacked the edge to push Argentina the extra yards to victory. He was replaced by Edgardo Bauza, a coach with a fine pedigree in South America, having won the Copa Libertadores with both Liga de Quito and San Lorenzo. But Bauza was a coach who had enjoyed success with unfashionable sides; he organized and inspired ordinary players to extraordinary heights. That was not what was required with Argentina, and his struggle to reconcile his approach with a team of superstars led to a breakdown in his relationship with the Argentinian media.
It didn’t help that he was so obviously second-choice for the job. Sampaoli was clearly the preferred candidate but had just agreed to a contract with Sevilla when Martino resigned. A predictably sluggish defeat in La Paz brought the end for Bauza. Sampaoli, who led Chile to its first major tournament success and plays a Marcelo Bielsa-influenced hard-pressing game, took over. Few doubt he is the right man for the job, but a switch of coach will not immediately correct all that is amiss in the Argentinian game, which begins with the chaotic leadership of the national federation and encompasses every aspect of the sport from youth development to violence in the stands.
Sampaoli’s first two competitive games in charge brought a mildly encouraging draw away to Uruguay and a hugely disappointing draw at home to Venezuela. In both games Argentina used a back three, with Messi and Dybala operating behind Mauro Icardi. “It’s difficult to play with Messi,” Dybala said this week, prompting an explosion of sensational headlines. In context, though, what he said made sense. A string of forwards have struggled to operate alongside Messi, unable to play their own game because they are so conscious of the need to let Messi play his. That exacerbates a shortfall of creativity from midfield, which forces Messi to drop deeper and deeper, away from the area in which he is at his most effective. In theory, the hard-pressing game favored by Sampaoli should mitigate that, forcing the midfield high and thus reducing the space Messi can drop into. But that will take time, if it happens at all.
The game against Venezuela was a huge worry. Argentina was frenetic and panicky, its only goal an own goal, meaning that in the last four qualifiers no Argentina player has scored from open play. In a sense, Argentina was fortunate that none of the other contenders pulled away, but as Chile slides, Peru is on the up and up after three successive 2-1 wins.
Argentina has been in tight spots before at this stage of qualification and has always pulled through. This time, though, there is a fear that lurks beyond the usual anxiety. Mess this up, and it may be that Messi, who is now 30, has already played his last World Cup match. And if he couldn’t end the trophy drought that has gone on since 1993, then who can?