Argentina’s post-World Cup rebuilding efforts face a somewhat untimely test of fire on Monday. The team coached by interim boss Lionel Scaloni, shorn of its most recognisable names and, most importantly, captain and talisman Lionel Messi, take on a formidable Brazil side, who unlike their South American neighbours have put their faith in evolution rather than revolution and line up with almost all of their stars.
The match in Saudi Arabia would be a daunting test under any circumstances. But with half of the Albiceleste’s squad still on sabbatical after the disaster of Russia 2018, and more, retained by their clubs, even an encouraging 4-0 defeat of lowly Iraq offers little confidence ahead of this clash.
Some absences are unavoidable. Scaloni has repeatedly stated that Messi has not given up on his national team, but rather needs a break at the start of what promises to be another punishing, hectic club season with Barcelona.
The same goes for the likes of Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María and other established names, although their places in the starting line-up may not be quite as secure as Leo’s should one of the young hopefuls on this tour make a case for selection – Inter Milan forward Lautaro Martínez for one did his chances no harm with a fine headed goal against Iraq, his first in international colours.
Other withdrawals, however, point to the ongoing battle between club and country within the Argentine Football Assocation that has so harmed the nation’s football over the years. And once again, Buenos Aires aristocrats Boca Juniors and River Plate led the way.
No less than five players from the two Superclásico rivals pulled out of October’s friendly double-header due to injuries of varying severity. River removed goalkeeper Franco Armani and midfield pair Gonzalo Martínez and Exequiel Palacios from contention, while the Xeneize followed suit by calling Cristian Pavón back. While there is little doubt that ‘Pity’ and Palacios, nursing muscular tears, were correctly treated, the same confidence is lacking for the latter pair: both Armani and Pavón completed 90 minutes for their clubs as recently as last Sunday, with no perceptible issues.
“He had to talk to the coach [Scaloni] because he had a complaint at the end of the game, he came to me and told me, but we had no more substitutions. Was he withdrawn? Then he must have already talked to Scaloni,” Boca coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto told reporters when quizzed on his charge’s mystery muscle issue.
The real suspicion, however, is that, having seen how Armani was quickly removed from the squad during talks between Scaloni and River, Boca decided to follow suit and keep their star striker at home. Barros Schelotto in any case made his priorities abundantly clear: “This is a World Cup year. Nobody wants to see their national team now, not Argentina, not Uruguay, anybody. They want to watch their clubs.”
The clubs in turn have little time for the concerns of a national team that continues in a state of crisis after a painfully mediocre World Cup. The Copa Libertadores is the only thing on River and Boca’s minds right now, and anything that might interfere with their semifinal preparations must be overcome.
That mentality is understandable, but its effect on Argentina’s squad can only be explained by an AFA that goes to extreme lengths to keep its privileged pair content with rules that can be bent and manipulated at their whim. One can only hope that if Monday’s result is as unfavourable as the formbook right now would suggest, representatives of neither Boca nor River come out with a long lament over the state of the national game which they are obstinately refusing to assist.