NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Poor Willy Caballero, who was supposed to be Argentina’s backup and didn’t ask for any of this. He'll serve his sentence as the meme of the moment. The goalkeeper’s astonishing blunder in the second half of Thursday’s Argentina-Croatia game will be GIF and Not Top 10 fodder for a day or two, and it’ll become emblematic of a World Cup that’s quickly going south for La Albiceleste.
And it was awful. Instead of settling or clearing a rolling, 53rd-minute back pass from Gabriel Mercado, the goalkeeper tried to return the ball with a one-touch lob over Croatia forward Ante Rebić. Caballero missed, badly, and Rebić volleyed the wayward turnover home. It was an absurd moment that’ll live in Argentine infamy and which broke the Group D game open for the Croatians, who then eased to a 3-0 win and a spot in the round of 16.
The spotlight that’ll shine on Caballero’s blunder is a bit unfair to the 36-year-old squad player, however. After all, it was Sergio Romero’s recent knee injury that forced Caballero onto the field, and it was Croatian pressure that forced Mercado’s pass. The reason Thursday’s game at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium was scoreless when he screwed up was that Argentina midfielder Enzo Pérez missed a point-blank chance in the 30th, and Croatia had shut down service to Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero so effectively that they touched the ball fewer than 30 times combined in the first half.
Also, it wasn’t Caballero who crumbled after Croatia took the lead. It was Argentina, a two-time world champion and 2014 silver medalist who’s supposed to act like it’s been here before. And both sides saw it.
“It was a shot in the arm for us, and we played a perfect game,” said man of the match Luka Modrić, the Real Madrid dynamo who was every bit the sort of midfield molder and creator that Argentina once produced.
Admitted Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli: “After they scored on us, we lost our way. We were emotionally broken, and we didn’t have any footballing arguments to make to change the course of events.”
Croatia is a very talented team and now, with the way this World Cup is shaping up, it's a good bet to get to the quarterfinals. So its story probably will continue. Meanwhile, the story of Tuesday and the story of Group D has been Argentina’s implosion, and what very well may be a very brief and impotent World Cup farewell for Messi. He’s the greatest of his era for some, the greatest ever for others and his yearning for that elusive title with Argentina has been a piece of inspiring narrative and sporting pathos that’s captured headlines for years.
Poor Lionel Messi. Instead of Caballero’s flailing, the lasting image of Tuesday’s loss should be the sight of Argentina’s captain during the pregame anthems, when he lowered his gaze and rubbed his forehead like he just found out his car was impounded. He lost the 2014 World Cup final in extra time. He missed a penalty in the Copa América Centenario final two years later. And he missed another one in the group-stage opener against Iceland, which would’ve given Argentina three points instead of one. The team around him, once one of soccer’s grittiest, most reliable competitors, has devolved into a disconnected collection of passive men who’ve become too deferential to Messi, too fragile to take any initiative and too easily overwhelmed by adversity.
Sampaoli, who managed Chile to victory over his native Argentina at the 2015 Copa América, has exacerbated that disconnect with constant tactical and lineup upheaval. He changed it all up again on Tuesday, sending Argentina out in a 3-4-3 that apparently delighted Croatian counterpart Zlatko Dalić, who said, “We knew the back three for Argentina were a bit weaker and they would break down under pressure."
Argentina has no system, no style and no collective idea of what to do other than get the ball to Messi and hope. They lumber around the field like they're playing in a January NBA game. And at this level, that’s going to be easier to stop. Iceland, a country with the population of a Buenos Aires barrio, found 11 players who could lock down the middle of the pitch and stymie Argentina. Croatia was less blunt instrument and more about slow strangulation, as it limited service to Messi, exposed the frailty around him then went for the kill. Modrić and Messi’s Barcelona teammate Ivan Rakitić scored in the 80th and 91st minutes, respectively, to author the emphatic final margin.
“Argentina’s poor display was due to our good performance and our compact block all over the field, particularly when we didn’t have the ball,” Modrić said. “We cut off the lines of passing. We wanted to prevent Messi receiving the ball, and that is how we cut out their creativity.”
Dalić boasted, “Argentina wasn’t confused. We were excellent.”
But Argentina was confused. This is a team with Messi, Agüero, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuaín and others (including Inter Milan marksman Mauro Icardi, whom Sampaoli left behind) that isn’t even dangerous. The country that gave the “enganche” to the world plays ponderous, predictable soccer, and anyone who’s shocked by what they’re seeing here in Russia didn’t tune in for qualifying. Argentina needed a hat trick from Messi in the 10th and final game just to book passage, and only Bolivia scored fewer goals.
Sampaoli accepted the blame in Nizhny, inside a stadium coincidentally colored, both inside and out, in Argentina’s light blue and white.
"I’ve always looked for and searched for the best position of my players on the field … But we didn’t manage to find the relationships that could benefit Argentina and also benefit Leo,” said the coach, who took charge in June 2017. “We thought this would be the match in which we would take off as a team, but it wasn’t that in the end … I think this is an excellent squad. But at no stage in the process did we manage to really gel and come together.”
That disconnect, Sampaoli said, “clouds Leo’s brilliance. Leo is limited because the team doesn’t gel ideally as it should.”
It sounded like an admission of failure, and perhaps capitulation. It wasn’t hard to see similar submission in Messi’s body language during the anthem, or in the fact that he was the first player off the field once the final whistle blew. It was straight to the tunnel, with a couple glances behind as he walked off. No handshakes, acknowledgement or jersey swapping. Just “get me outta here.”
The burden is his, the pain is his and a portion of the responsibility is as well. Make those penalties, and the conversation is different. But this team and its World Cup struggles are the product of a culture and a federation whose influence is far greater than any player, even one as great as Messi, not to mention a goalie’s silly slip-up. Argentina has been in trouble for some time.
There’s still a chance, at least mathematically, to turn it around. Beat Nigeria next Tuesday in St. Petersburg and get help, and Argentina (0-1-1) may yet back into the round of 16. But after seeing them fold against Croatia, progressing much further than that seems like a fantasy. Messi’s last best chance may already have gone. He looked like he knew it in Nizhny.