Identically to the 2018 World Cup, the Albiceleste sit bottom of the pile with one point, needing a victory to keep their hopes of progression alive. It is the logical outcome of 12 months of stagnation and uncertainty that have only pushed the 2015 and 2016 finalists closer to what can only be described at this point as near-terminal decline.
Pinpointing one single reason for Argentina’s malaise as they put their hopes on the line on Sunday against Qatar is a futile exercise. A combination of factors have taken the nation to the brink of oblivion, a combination of unforced errors at all levels and structural failings that have not been addressed for decades.
Argentina’s problems start right at the top. Having spent the best part of three years reeling following the death of eternal president Julio Humberto Grondona – who went to the grave bearing countless charges of corruption and mafioso behaviour but who at least, to parrot the famous myth that accompanied Benito Mussolini, ‘made the trains run on time’ – the AFA turned to the shadowy Claudio Tapia in the top job.
So far Tapia’s only visible virtue to justify occupying that job appears to be his fluid relationship with Lionel Messi. The pair have been photographed together on countless occasions, and the ex-Barracas Central president counts among his ‘successes’ that of convincing Leo to come back following that disaster in Russia.
Fond of muscling his way into team photos, the president has also shown himself to have an extremely itchy trigger finger. Just weeks into his AFA tenure at the start of 2017, he made the decision to dump the unpopular Edgardo Bauza and bring in Jorge Sampaoli, whom he dubbed “the best coach in the world” upon appointment.
He was equally quick to ditch Sampaoli when Argentina made their way back from Russia, leaving the FA with crippling overheads in the form of multi-million dollar severance payments to not one, not two, but three different coaches (Gerardo Martino continued to pick up his salary until 2018). That left precious little in the pot to hire a top-class replacement, few of whom in any case were interested in picking up what had fast become a poisoned chalice.
Unable to entice the likes of Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone or even River Plate’s Marcelo Gallardo, Tapia had little choice but to turn to Lionel Scaloni, an absolute novice who nevertheless came with the advantage of being extremely cheap and willing to put up with such a shambolic working environment.
Tapia’s antics have not made him popular among his peers. “I wouldn’t even think of going to drink [popular Argentine beverage] mate with Messi, bringing him framed photos or giving him presents,” River president Rodolfo d’Onofrio fired on Friday. “You should have a cordial relationship, but one where it is clear that he is the player.
“Not one where the player does not know or realise if he is a player or the president, it gets confusing with such a strong relationship.”
That friendship has indeed done nothing to prevent results taking a nose-dive under his administration. Since Tapia took over in March 2017 Argentina have played 10 competitive fixtures, winning just two, against Ecuador in their final World Cup qualifier and Nigeria at Russia 2018 itself, and scoring a pitiful 11 goals.
Of his man on the bench, meanwhile, little more need be said. Scaloni, having never previously held a senior coaching position, is horrendously out of his depth in Brazil, tinkering constantly with a line-up that so far has not looked close to functioning. So far, his tenure has been a monument to trial and error, with the emphasis firmly on the latter.
Scaloni has fielded 11 different line-ups in as many games since taking over from Jorge Sampaoli, with a 12th, featuring Sergio Aguero and Lautaro Martinez up front ahead of Messi, expected to debut against Qatar. The presence of that duo in the starting line-up sums up the coach’s approach: the first XI picked to take on Paraguay was based on 20 promising second-half minutes once he had run the changes in defeat to Colombia, while Aguero and Martinez get the nod this time after gelling momentarily and forcing the penalty that allowed Messi to peg back the Guarani.
Such improvisation and reactive thinking, as well as that infamous dressing room rebellion, was largely responsible for Sampaoli’s dismissal less than a year ago; and while Scaloni cuts a rather milder figure compared to his fiery former boss he has inherited the panic only natural when a settled team simply refuses to appear.
In the coach’s defence, he is working with fewer resources than perhaps any Argentina coach in recent memory. The Albiceleste were in dire need of renewal after the 2018 World Cup, arguably even earlier; but what if the players are just not there?
The likes of Giovani Lo Celso, Leandro Paredes, German Pezzella, Rodrigo De Paul and Lautaro Martinez, those who have played most often in Scaloni’s new-look and ever-changing teams, are undoubtedly accomplished footballers in their own right. But so far, perhaps with the exception of the menacing Interstriker, the new generation has done little to prove it has what it takes to match or surpass their predecessors.
Such a green line-up by necessity often needs a strong hand, from the man on the bench as well as the player entrusted with the captain’s armband. Given all the issues explained above, however, it is legitimate to question whether Messi, even in his capacity as the finest football talent on the planet, can do that.
“We are not [title] candidates like on other occasions,” the Barca star admitted in the build-up to the tournament. His honesty was perhaps refreshing, but it also laid bare the scant confidence Argentina’s captain, the standard-bearer for his generation, had in the unfamiliar faces that now surround him on the pitch.
Messi, of course, is not known for his vociferous leadership. He prefers to set an example through his virtuoso ability, and countless times has come through to be Argentina’s match-winner when all looked lost.
In previous years that posed no conflict in the squad. Argentina boasted an enviably settled line-up of players who had shared the dressing room for multiple campaigns; and when heads needed to be banged together and backsides kicked the more combustible Javier Mascherano, the leader without an armband, stepped up to impose order.
Mascherano is gone, however, as are many of the senior figures so vital from 2014 onwards. Those who have kept their places, such as Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, are also softly-spoken and inward-looking rather than inspirational, leaving a team where the vast majority hold 20 caps or less rudderless in adversity.
Did Messi intervene to push his troops forward when Colombia took the lead last Saturday? Did he respond to Richard Sanchez’s gift of a goal for Paraguay with a rousing speech to lift his demoralised team-mates? That is not his style. He kept his head down and looked to turn his side’s fortunes by virtue of his own magical left foot, while the rest of the Albiceleste floundered.
He nevertheless remains the record-breaking phenomenon who has dominated the game for more than a decade, and it would be no surprise at all to see him shine once again to put Qatar to the sword and send Argentina to the quarters. While they have turned some heads in Brazil with two solid, determined performances, the champions of Asia will start as underdogs in a game Messi and Co. must win to keep their hopes alive.
But even if a victory and qualification does follow, or even if their eventual last-eight opponents also fall by the wayside, the overall feeling is that the Albiceleste are living on borrowed time in the Copa. A rookie coach; a team that has failed to convince; and a captain who is much better on the ball than as a motivator: all have conspired to send the nation on a dizzying decline that shows no sign of ending.