Long-term underachievement to blame for Argentina's troubles, not Lionel Messi
For those who believe Lionel Messi must win a World Cup to be considered the greatest footballer of all time, Argentina’s most recent struggles will provoke a smug response. In a world so desperate to categorise and rank different achievements, particularly in sport, La Albiceleste’s poor form in World Cup qualification will only add to the tedious and indeed insulting debate as to where the Barcelona star sits in the pantheon of greats to have played the game.
It has been a tough few months for new coach Jorge Sampaoli; he inherited a real mess from his predecessor Edgardo Bauza and has not yet been able to make his mark on the team. Thursday evening’s 0-0 draw at home to Peru left them in sixth place in the South American CONMEBOL table, level on points with their opponents.
As things stand, they will miss out on next summer’s football festivities in Russia; to avoid that, they must beat Ecuador in intense altitude, over 3000 feet above sea level, before entering a likely playoff against Oceania champions New Zealand. Messi is unsurprisingly a target for critics once again; it has happened before and it will again, but it only serves to prove he will not be truly appreciated perhaps until he retires.
Two men have dominated Messi’s career in similar, but contextually different ways. Diego Maradona, known as Dios, ‘God’, in Argentina, is the man likened most to Messi in terms of playing style. Maradona is a troubled soul but there can be no doubting of his otherworldly talents, which he used to the greatest effect in 1986 by leading his country to a second World Cup triumph in Mexico.
Years later, a failed drugs test sent his career spiralling out of control, threatening to overshadow his abilities, but he is still held in the highest regard in his homeland, the yardstick other players are judged by. Only Messi has come close, but that has led to extra pressure and subsequent criticism when he cannot deliver what Maradona did.
Messi’s more pressing concern has always been Cristiano Ronaldo; the pair represent both sides of the Barcelona-Real Madrid divide as the perfect symbol of what each of those clubs stand for.
Ronaldo is the embodiment of the modern footballer, a celebrity who loves the limelight, whereas Messi is perceived to let his football do the talking. Both have dominated individual awards for almost a decade now and their records have been almost identical. Yet, by winning the European Championships with Portugal last year, as Messi missed a penalty in the Copa America final against Chile, Ronaldo took a giant leap ahead of his rival for some people, by shining on the international stage.
There are so many issues with that hypothesis, and it shows complete neglect for the deep-running problem hampering Argentine football. Such was the reaction to his missed penalty, Messi felt compelled to retire from international football at the age of 29; Sergio Agüero and Javier Mascherano also hung up their boots amid a breakdown in relationship with the Argentine Football Federation.
The trio have all returned, but communication with the governing body has barely improved and an ageing, unbalanced squad has been coached very poorly. Sampaoli, and Messi, are getting an extremely rough deal as a result.
Not since 1970 have Argentina failed to reach a World Cup, but they have only won it twice. Given the pool of talent available to Sampaoli, Bauza, Alejandro Sabella before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Maradona four years earlier in South Africa and Jose Pekerman in Germany in 2006, the Argentine public are entitled to expect much more than one final appearance in that time; that came from Messi’s sublime individual performances four years ago.
In 2002, a team with Juan Sebastian Veron, Pablo Aimar and Hernan Crespo failed to get out of the group stage in Japan and South Korea. Two silver medals in the last two Copa America tournaments do not hide the fact they have not won it since 1993; the current struggles may be worse than usual, but the problems have been around for many generations. Talent does not guarantee success.
In reality, the cycle is just repeating itself. Argentina have one of the best players of all time as their talisman, the best example of a footballer in 30 years, with Messi. He can be partnered by Gonzalo Higuain, a €90million signing for Juventus in 2016, Paulo Dybala, Higuain’s clubmate widely regarded as a future Ballon d’Or winner, or Mauro Icardi, Inter’s controversial but clinical goal machine.
Agüero missed out against Peru after a car crash, but the attacking talent is hardly in short supply. Just 16 goals have been scored in qualification with 15 conceded. Thursday saw the seventh draw in 17 games, more than anyone else, clearly points to their problems; the priorities have been so wrong for so long.
Sampaoli may be the perfect man to revive them, but Argentina better hope they have not left it too late for Russia. Holland, France and England will all testify that no team can take qualification for granted.
Argentina are on the brink of the most embarrassing era in their footballing history. It is so easy to blame Jorge Sampaoli or Lionel Messi, but the truth is they have been heading for this for quite some time.