With its present stricken by uncertainty and indecision, it is little surprise that within the Argentine national team and the Argentine Football Association (AFA) itself the temptation to look back at past glories is difficult to resist. Nostalgia casts a long shadow over Viamonte, prompting proposals for the Albiceleste that appear better suited to 1978 than 2019.
The decision to place legendary coach and 1978 World Cup winner César Luis Menotti in the ambiguous and ill-defined role of ‘manager’ is a sign of the times. Menotti undoubtedly has a brilliant track record, having harvested titles at home and abroad during his six-decade association with football. With Lionel Scaloni boasting littleto-no experience on the bench, the idea was to place at the coach’s disposal one of the game’s most decorated figures, a kind of mentor to see him through the Copa América and beyond.
Ever the maverick, though, Menotti seems to have other ideas. While Argentina stutter and stumble towards the Copa – which, lest we forget, kicks off in just two months time – the 80-year-old is focused on his own pet project. A national team composed of players active in the Superliga, which can work together week in, week out, and reproduce the spirit of that first World Cup win.
While the manager has managed to convince AFA President Claudio ‘Chiqui’ Tapia of the virtues of his plan, Scaloni himself remains reluctant. “If it is possible, the local team will be formed, if it is not, it will not be,” he told reporters dismissively when grilled on the project. “The calendar is complicated and it will be tough. We are willing, but it is difficult.” Other reports suggest that the issue has led to a damaging impasse between Menotti and his supposed underling, with efforts to organise a meeting yet to bear fruits.
At 40, Scaloni is ha lf Menotti’s age and, regardless of the valid criticisms over his qualifications to lead Argentina, he seems to have his finger closer to the pulse of modern football. Compiling even a single national team is a thankless task due to the punishing schedule faced by all elite players, pushed to the limit by club commitments as it is. The days of international squads enjoying weeks or even months together prior to big tournaments, as in Menotti’s day, are well and truly over, as is the idea that club directors will happily sacrifice their own plans for the good ofthe nation.
These are the same clubs after all that all but annihilated Gerardo Martino’s promising Argentina tenure in 2016 by refusing to release young stars to train ahead of the prestigious Olympic Games, pushing the current Mexico coach to quit his post and set in motion the decline that has been so damaging to the national team over the last three years. The Superliga and Copas Sudamericana and Libertadores are all that matter in the minds of presidents, who will be extremely reluctant to indulge Menotti’s mooted idea of taking their players away for two training sessions a week, as well as a series of friendly matches across the country. Lanús chief Nicolás Russo voiced the concerns of many in a withering criticism of the project to the Super Mitre radio station: “It makes no sense, I cannot see it as reasonable. It is not appropriate for this time in Argentine football. The best players are overseas and the youngsters leave quickly, here we sell the special players right away.”
At this point everybody involved with the Argentina national team should have nothing on their mind other than putting the finishing touches on the Copa América squad, devising a team that can hold its own in Brazil while also looking forward to the World Cup qualifiers and Qatar 2022 itself. Instead the Albiceleste has found itself embroiled in an absurd squabble spearheaded by a manager whose plans are no less than 30 years out of date. Menotti deserves huge respect for all that he has accomplished; but if this quixotic longing for a local side actively harms the national team his position above Scaloni will soon become untenable.