As Argentina took the field this week for the first time since June’s World Cup debacle, two absences stood out more clearly than others.
An experimental team directed by interim coach Lionel Scaloni was without the caretaker’s namesake and the nation’s captain, one Leo Messi, who kept his feet up in Barcelona while the Albiceleste were put through their paces against Guatemala and Colombia.
But it was not just the little wizard from Rosario who was missing in the United States. His hallowed number 10 shirt was also left vacant for the two games, sending the message that it is merely being kept warm for its rightful owner when – or, perhaps, if – he decides to resume his international career.
Scaloni, leading from the front in a refreshingly open manner, as he has done since taking over national team duties, did not shy away from questions over the highly symbolic omission. “It was exclusively my decision,” the coach told reporters during a press conference ahead of Tuesday’s 0-0 draw with Colombia. “The number 10 is Messi’s exclusive property and I decided nobody would use it.” Needless to say, the decision did not achieve universal acclamation – even goalkeeper Sergio Romero opined that the ten “always should be used” by Argentina – and was just the storm in a teacup observers needed to spice up an otherwise rather mundane week of international friendlies.
But enough about those who weren’t on the field, a group that aside from Messi included the likes of Nicolás Otamendi, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and a host of other habitual starters in the Albiceleste set-up. In their absence, it was left to a group of young promises to deliver in Los Angeles and New York, and by and large Scaloni and his charges will be happy with a mini-tour that yielded a win and a draw with three goals scored and not a single strike conceded.
Shorn of the established stars, the kids proved they are alright. Gerónimo Rulli may have been little more than a privileged spectator in goal as Guatemala were thrashed 3-0, but he nevertheless staved off danger to mark Argentina’s first clean sheet since May’s clash with Haiti. Paris SaintGermain’s Gio Lo Celso made a mockery of the decision not to give the midfielder a single minute at the World Cup as he played both games and looked assured in possession, while debutant Giovanni Simeone raised a cheer with a fine headed goal to extend the advantage against Guatemala.
Mauro Icardi fared rather worse in a tense, mean game against the rather more accomplished Colombia on Tuesday, starved of opportunities, but the explosive introduction of teenage River Plate star Exequiel Palacios was extremely encouraging for the future of Argentina, even if he is at the very start of his career.
Argentina being Argentina, however, this series of almost meaningless friendlies had to provide one more overblown controversy to accompany ‘ten-gate’, and it came in the shape of Paulo Dybala.
The Juventus whizzkid has long been touted as Messi’s successor as national talisman, and with the great one out of circulation he was expected to play a pivotal role. But it was not to be. Dybala played just a handful of minutes off the bench against Colombia, supposedly for tactical reasons, a choice that provoked his brother Gustavo to exclaim, “If they can’t make money off you, then you won’t be playing!”
Dybala was press-ganged into personally explaining his own benching at full-time, and was a model of diplomacy. “Our families always want us to play and often in the heat of the moment these things can happen, but I have a great relationship with the coach and with his team,” he clarified. “Obviously these things grab attention but the team is good and I think we have to look at the players on the field and not what happens off it.”
It was the correct reaction from the player, but the sensation remains that, just as Messi took years to find his calling in the national team, Dybala is struggling in a similar process, and with the added burden of Leo as the side’s undisputed standard bearer even while thousands of kilometres away. If just one conclusion can be drawn from this first glimpse of a brave new world for the Albiceleste, it is this: no matter what the future holds for Messi and his 10 shirt, Argentina cannot afford to let history repeat itself with his anointed heir.