There will be no World Cup title for Argentina’s Under-20 team.
The most successful nation in the history of the youth competition have once again fallen short, ensuring that victory in 2007 remains their sixth and last triumph in the age group. Usually, the Albiceleste kids’ exit would provoke a storm of criticism, soul-searching and finger-pointing over the latest failure – but this time, there is no little optimism around a team that was desperately unlucky to lose out.
Football is a sport defined by the finest of margins. So Argentina discovered as they tasted defeat at the hands of Mali. The side coached by Fernando Batista led 2-1 going into the final seconds of extra time on Tuesday, Adolfo Gaich and an own goal provoked by the excellent Ezequiel Barco making the difference. But in what was almost the last play of the game, disaster struck. The Albiceleste went to sleep at a Mali free-kick and left Boubacar Konté free to convert a last-gasp equaliser. In the ensuing penalty shoot-out Mali netted all five of their kicks, while Tomás Chancalay saw his effort saved to send the African nation through to the quarter-finals.
It was a heavy blow for an Argentina squad that had played some fine football up to the last 16 and looked set to be among the favourites for the competition going into the knockout stages. But as Batista said after shoot-out heart-break, the result does not tell the full story.
“What I told the lads is that the positive thing is having been up to the challenge of a World Cup,” the coach told reporters. “My goal as a trainer is for them to be the future of the national team.”
That is, of course, the ultimate objective for any coach at youth level. The real legacy of Argentina’s Under-20 World Cup wins in 2005 and 2007 was not the trophy itself, but rather the crop of players that used those campaigns as a springboard for future senior success. Lionel Messi, Fernando Gago, Pablo Zabaleta, Lucas Biglia and Ezequiel Garay all featured in the former; while two years later the title was defended by the likes of Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María and Sergio Romero. A single generation of players that formed the core of the team that reached the World Cup final in 2014, and which has been the foundation of the Albiceleste for the last decade.
Since those heady days, as the enviable youth system put in place by José Pekerman has splintered and crumbled, the conveyor belt of talent from youth to senior level dried up alarmingly. Fifteen players from the 2007 squad went on to become full internationals for Argentina, compared to just seven in 2011 and as few as four from the 2015 World Cup call-up. There are signs, however, that things might just be changing.
Lionel Scaloni has taken the lead in calling up a host of young hopefuls since assuming command of the senior team, handing débuts to seven members of Argentina’s 2017 Under-20 team.
At the same time, the youth divisions themselves appear in better shape than ever, with the app oi nt ment of you n g, knowledgeable coaches with ample international experience – Pablo Aimar working with Batista, Diego Placente further down the age groups at Under-15 level – and a more integrated system of recruiting and training than has been seen since the Pekerman days.
It still remains to be seen
whether the rejuvenated youth
set-up will bear fruit in the
years to come, at Qatar 2022
and beyond. But expectations
are high, and justifiably so, that
despite disappointment in the
World Cup Argentina’s kids
are in better shape than ever
and ready to make a splash at