There was no triumphal homecoming for the Argentina national team this year after the World Cup. Nor, indeed, any homecoming at all to speak of. Hours after a perhaps inevitable defeat in the last 16 at the hands on France on Saturday, a fleet of airliners and private jets had already descended on Russia to ferry away the Albiceleste’s crestfallen troops across the globe. Only Marcos Acúña and Enzo Pérez boarded the plane that took Argentina’s World Cup delegation back to Buenos Aires; once Acúña had been dropped off in Portugal, the River Plate midfielder was the sole player to accompany Claudio Tapia and Jorge Sampaoli back home.
It was a far cry from the hero’s welcome given at Ezeiza to Alejandro Sabella’s beaten finalists in 2014 and even the chaotic side marshalled by Diego Maradona four years previously. But the scattered retreat from Russia was also the perfect metaphor for a team that never came together and made the headlines only for their disunity and conflicts.
Coach Sampaoli has logically found himself in the firing line for his team’s shortcomings. The former Chile and Sevilla coach has thus far failed to find the invention and spark that has characterised his meteoric career on the national team bench, and his tactical decisions in Russia were curious at best, downright disastrous at worst. But the streams of vitriol that have been thrown his way go above and beyond his responsibilty for a World Cup campaign that prior to kick-off was completely in line with what was expected of such a disjoined, unbalanced squad. More deplorable still are the press operations he faced during the tournament and is now bracing to weather back on Argentine soil. Those manoeuvres seem to be orchestrated from the very summit of the Argentine Football Assocation (AFA), the same organisation that fought so hard to land Sampaoli just one year ago and hailed the Rosario native as the best coach in the world as he prepared for the difficult task of steering the Albiceleste to the World Cup.
The truth of the matter is that Argentina went into the tournament in shambolic fashion and, when their usual miracle-maker Lionel Messi failed to reach his usual prodigious heights, that lack of cohesion was quickly found out by a succession of better-organised outfits. On the three occasions this year that the Albiceleste measured up against top-quality opposition the overall balance makes for painful reading: three defeats against Spain, Croatia and France, four goals scored and a whopping 13 conceded. Those are not the kind of numbers upon which successful World Cup campaigns are forged. Even before the impossible velocity of Kylian Mbappé put Argentina to the sword elimination in Russia was, to quote ex-coach César Menotti, the chronicle of a death foretold.
“A different outcome would have been a miracle, it would have been perhaps even dangerous because when you win everything is then alright,” the veteran 1978 World Cup winner fired. “Of course I would be happy, but the triumph would be down to the players, not football. There would be no guarantee Argentina would be a solid team, but they are competitive.
“We qualified in a panic and Messi has been the man to solve all problems for too many years, managing to make the difference that made qualification from the first round possible. Without him, I do not know if we would have made it.”
All eyes now turn to the future. Sampaoli has been the obvious scapegoat for failure, with the knives drawn for the fractious coach long before the France clash. A prohibitive severance fee estimated at as much as US$20 million might stay Tapia and the AFA’s hand for now, but it certainly will not prevent the character assassination Sampaoli has been subject to for months from continuing at an accelerated pace with the goal of forcing him onto his own sword. Having destroyed morale and collective spirit with the constant changing of the man in charge, yet another coaching shift is now being presented as the magic bullet that can usher in a new era for the Selección.
But the identity of the coach, whether it is Sampaoli or the latest sacrificial lamb, is almost irrelevant. The real conclusion from Russia should be that with a team wholly dependent on a single man, incapable of generating play outside Messi’s magical feet, success is impossible. The time has come for a real hard look at the Argentina team and to begin a process of renewal that, while painful, is necessary if the nation want to avoid similar disappointment in next year’s Copa América and beyond. That will be a much harder task, but after this muted goodbye from the ailing class of 2005 and 2007, Mascherano, Agüero, Di María and the rest, it simply cannot be put off any longer.