Argentina went to Russia in 2018 with a sense it was now or never. They had lost in the final of the previous World Cup. A great generation of attacking talent was ageing. Lionel Messi was 31 and two years earlier had flirted with international retirement after a second successive Copa América final defeat to Chile. And at last the Argentinian Football Association had managed to appoint, in Jorge Sampaoli, a dynamic and progressive coach who promised to restore the days of Bielsista optimism.
Messi scored one brilliant goal, against Nigeria and there was a spirited exit against France in the last 16, but the last World Cup was a huge disappointment. There was a drab draw against Iceland and an embarrassingly comprehensive defeat to Croatia.
Sampaoli, meanwhile, seemed overwhelmed by the job, grey-faced and sweating as he failed to overcome the basic incompatibility of Argentina’s fleet of lumbering defenders with his demand for a hard press and a high line.
It was clear he had to go, but the AFA, sclerotic and riven by factional infighting, was as good as broke even before paying off his contract. When Lionel Scaloni, the former West Ham full-back, was appointed to replace him, initially as a caretaker, his greatest qualification was that, having already been employed as one of Sampaoli’s assistants, he was cheap.
Argentina slipped into pessimism: the production line that had brought five Under-20 World Cups between 1995 and 2007 was broken and Messi’s powers seemed to be waning.
Sometimes, though, things just work out. Last year, Argentina beat Brazil at the Maracanã to win the Copa América. It was an extra tournament added to the schedule to raise funds for impoverished federations under the guise of rejigging the calendar and it had been a largely soulless event played in empty stadiums by players who had openly contemplated a boycott. But for Argentina all that mattered was that the 28-year trophy drought was over. And now la Scaloneta, as this side has become known, can contemplate more.
The Messi story has always felt somehow dramatically unsatisfying because it lacks shade. Since he arrived at Barcelona as a 13 -year-old he has been, at least at club level, absurdly consistent and relentlessly successful. There have been none of the operatic rises and falls that characterised the life of the great hero to whom he must always be compared. Diego Maradona suffered a badly broken ankle, hepatitis and cocaine addiction.
Messi sometimes got irritated with his teammates. This, though, might be the glory towards which his career has been heading, dragging Argentina at the age of 35, after all seemed lost, to an improbable third World Cup.
That’s the romantic view, one encouraged by Messi’s exceptional form for Paris Saint-Germain. But as ever with Argentina there are practical issues, largely to do with the incompetence of AFA.
It is only a year since Argentina’s World Cup qualifier against Brazil was abandoned as police and health officials entered the pitch in an attempt to detain three players for alleged breaches of Covid protocols. Cristian Romero missed Friday’s friendly against Honduras in Miami after visa delays supposedly caused by the bank holiday declared for the Queen’s funeral. “It’s a problem,” said Scaloni, “because this is the last date we have to get together and train, he can’t be here.” But that is not the only issue. There is frustration in Argentina that the Uefa Nations League denies them both variety and quality of opponents. The 3-0 win against Honduras extended Argentina’s unbeaten run to 34 games and they should move a step closer to Italy’s record of 37 against Jamaica on Tuesday.
That Italy’s record was set between two World Cups for which they failed to qualify, even if it did incorporate success in the Euros, perhaps indicates the value of such statistics, but perhaps more pertinent is that Argentina’s run includes just four games against non-Latin American sides.
They were impressive in beating Italy 3-0 in the Copa Finalissima – the meeting between the winners of the Euros and the Copa America at Wembley in June – but that aside, before Friday Argentina’s only game against a non-Conmebol side in the past three years was a 5-0 friendly victory over Estonia. That is not a World Cup preparation anybody would plan.
The nature of the win at Wembley, though, has settled at least some anxiety. “When we played Italy, some cast doubt about our ability to take on European teams,” said the Atlético Madrid midfielder Rodrigo De Paul. “But against the last European champions the team did very well. I don’t feel like we’re at a different pace.” Honduras were a different challenge, muscular and aggressive, less than ideal friendly opponents in that regard as well. But la Scaloneta were unflustered. The front three may not have the glitz of Argentinian forward lines of the recent past, but it has balance and they work well together. Messi drifts in from the right to operate as a No 10 and it was from that position he created the two goals before half-time, first with a delicious scooped ball over the top (Papu Gómez low cross and Lautaro Martínez finish) and the second with a slipped through-ball (Papu Gómez pulled back; Messi penalty).
The third goal was a Messi chip, perhaps not quite as delicately brilliant as the one against Mexico in 2007 but more than enough to encourage those who would believe the power of narrative. Perhaps just as significantly, it stemmed from a midfield press led by the young Benfica midfielder Enzo Fernández. The structures work.
Questions remain, notably in the enduringly problematic full-back area. Neither right-backGonzalo Montiel nor the back-up left-back, Marcos Acuña, are playing regularly for their clubs. Ángel Correa and Joaquin Correa tend to be used from the bench for Atlético and Internazionale. Ángel Di María has so struggled for game time at Juventus. The AFA remains the AFA.
But they have a pattern and a style. They have confidence. They would have liked more exposure to high-level European opposition, but the dream of Messi’s glorious finale is very much alive.