The announcement of Lionel Scaloni's latest Argentina squad on Wednesday raised more than a few eyebrows. After largely maintaining the bulk of the group of players which surged to Copa América victory in Brazil four months ago, the coach took advantage of the next round of World Cup qualifiers to shake the proverbial birdcage somewhat.
As well as the usual suspects – including Lionel Messi, whose inclusion will most likely earn expressions of bemusement in Paris Saint-Germain given his current muscle injury – Argentina appear to be betting on the next generation for the upcoming clashes against Uruguay and Brazil. One of those kids, of course, is no surprise. Julián Álvarez has been in sensational form for River in recent months, smashing nine goals and six assists in his last eight games to give the Millonarios an almost unassailable lead at the Liga Profesional summit, despite dropping points to Estudiantes last time round in a thrilling 1-1 draw. Thiago Almada too has stood out for Vélez Sarsfield for some time now and can only benefit from spending time around the reigning champions of South America.
Some of the other names on the list, though, were rather more surprising. Among the players called up were Juventus trainee Matías Soulé, who arrived in Turin from Mar del Plata via Vélez Sarsfield and is yet to make his senior debut; and 17-year-old Tigre youth team goalkeeper Federico Gomes Gerthe, who has not even signed professional terms with the Primera Nacional team and who was probably more surprised than anyone to see his name alongside the likes of Emiliano Martínez and Juan Musso as Scaloni's chosen shot-stoppers.
“I was training when the list came out. I heard the news and started crying,” the teenager told TNT Sports following his call-up. “It is an incredible thing, I still can't believe it. I will try to take advantage of this opportunity and learn from the rest. The other goalkeepers are fantastic and I will be watching them so I can improve.”
While Argentina are on course to qualify with ease for Qatar 2022 one should not think that because of that Scaloni is set to throw his new recruits – as well as those mentioned above, Boca Juniors duo Ezequiel Zeballos and Cristian Medina, River's Enzo Fernández and Santiago Simón and Rosario Central defender Gastón Ávila, all aged 20 or younger, won inclusion – to the lions against two huge rivals, nor that the Copa América-winning coach is on some kind of maniacal power trip.
The youngsters will likely travel with Messi & Co as 'sparring partners' to Montevideo and San Juan, putting the senior men through their paces and in return gaining invaluable experience amongst some of the world's finest players. Their inclusion on the official list is a bureaucratic formality, to prevent their clubs from vetoing release – and also a sign that Scaloni is already thinking far beyond the World Cup, bringing through the possible next generation in order to make an eventual handover of power as seamless as possible.
We may be accustomed to griping over ever-increasing prices in Argentina, but our neighbours on the other side of the Río de la Plata are not immune to the phenomenon either – particularly when it comes to football, it would seem.
Fans' excitement at the prospect of watching Messi strut his stuff at Peñarol's Estadio Campeón del Siglo during next Friday's qualifier turned to ire when the ticket prices were released. The cheapest area available is set at UR$1,250 (US$30), going up to a wallet-busting UR$4,890 (US$110) for the priciest seats – including a 20 percent discount for early purchase valid only until Monday.
By way of comparison, standing tickets for Argentina's most recent games against Uruguay and Peru were available for $2,500, either US$25 at the official (and seldom quoted) exchange rate or US$12.50 at the unofficial 'blue' rate – still a considerable outlay, but almost a bargain considering the talent on offer.