The minute’s silence that pundits in an Argentine television studio observed for their national team after Thursday’s 3-0 thrashing by Croatia was premature. The country’s “worst team in history” — in the words of Osvaldo Ardiles, Argentine world champion in 1978 — remains undead. Victory against Nigeria on Tuesday would probably put them into the second round. But as Diego Maradona observes: “The problem isn’t Nigeria. The problem is ourselves.” How can Argentina finally unleash Lionel Messi, in what might prove his last World Cup game, when every tactical variant tried by coach Jorge Sampaoli has failed?
It is unclear who even gets to decide strategy now. After Croatia, various South American media reported a player coup against Sampaoli. Certainly striker Sergio Agüero told journalists, “Sampaoli can say what he wants,” yet the putsch seems to have been imagined by Argentina’s conspiracy-theory industry. (Another popular local theory holds that Israel’s secret service Mossad sabotaged Messi after Argentina cancelled a warm-up match against Israel.)
What does seem true is that Tuesday’s team will be picked by committee. This is not entirely new. Argentina in the Messi era have often privileged player power. Alejandro Sabella, their coach at the last World Cup, was chosen largely for his willingness to listen to players, though he might not have realised that. Before this tournament, Sampaoli said Argentina would be more “Messi’s team” than his own, and he fielded the players’ preferred formation in the opening draw against Iceland. Last Friday, Argentina’s staff, players and the almost universally maligned football federation president Claudio Tapia held a meeting, where, according to Messi’s spokesman, defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano, “Everyone gave his views. The player’s view is important.”
The newspaper La Nación predicts yet another new line-up, with keeper Franco Armani making his international debut aged 31 in the place of the catastrophic Willy Caballero, Gonzalo Higuain ousting Agüero, and Angel Di Maria returning instead of Marcos Acuña. But if personnel and formation were Argentina’s main issues, Sampaoli would have solved them during his short but wildly experimental tenure. Rather, it is their approach that needs to change.
Against Croatia, Messi looked a different person from the well-known Barcelona forward. Instead of joy, he showed stress and flashes of anger. Almost all his attempted combinations with teammates failed. Eventually, he vanished: he managed 31 passes all match, five fewer than Caballero.
Against Nigeria, he must take the field accepting that combination is doomed. Argentina won’t suddenly become fluent. Instead he should rediscover his 17-year-old self. The kid who debuted for Barcelona was such a soloist that some older teammates doubted he could ever learn team play. Quickly, Barcelona institutionalised him into it. Now he needs to unlearn everything and go solo again.
Argentina’s back six should abandon their slow, pointless sideways passing and simply hump the ball forward towards him and Higuain. If Messi gets 10 dribbles and free-kicks against Nigeria, it could be enough, as it was against Bosnia, Iran and Switzerland in the last World Cup. His mere presence will also bind multiple opponents to him. (However, he must stop taking penalties.) He can model himself on his rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who, living opportunistically off setpieces and chance moments, has scored four for a mediocre Portugal.
Primitivism can work. Messi’s Argentina have proved they can prosper without sophisticated tactics. A decade ago, an Olympic team including Messi, Mascherano, Agüero and Di Maria won gold against Nigeria in Beijing. In 2014 they lost the World Cup final to Germany in extra time, and in 2015 and 2016 reached consecutive Copa America finals, losing both on penalties to Chile (who in 2015 were managed by Sampaoli).
But should Argentina somehow stumble past Nigeria, their tournament and their silver generation will probably both end in the second round against France on Saturday. The 30-somethings Messi, Mascherano, Agüero, Di Maria, Higuain and several others would probably quit international football. Then we might truly see Argentina’s worst team ever.
The country’s domestic league has already been bought dry, and going to a game in certain hooligan-infested stadiums is considered rather like going to the Apocalypse. One of football’s great national traditions may soon need that moment of silence. If anyone believes it can’t happen, remember, Hungarian football used to be great, too.
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on World Cup 2018 when a new story is published