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Waiting for the Messiah’s resurrection to lift La Albiceleste

Jushna Shahin

From the magnitude of a penalty he missed in a third consecutive final, the Argentine super star, arguably the best player on the earth, Lionel Messi walked-off from MetLife Stadium pulling his shirt on his face after the Copa America final defeat of 2016. He would later create a seismic reaction across the football world with his decision to retire from International arena. And when prayers and appeals from millions of fans brought him back, to 2018 FIFA World Cup, whole of Argentina peeped to Russia with new hopes. But, watching their first match against Iceland, one can speculate that even though he withdrew his retirement plan, he is yet to recover from the trauma and embarrassment that camouflaged him two years ago. Extraordinary performance in FC Barcelona saw Messi grabbing five Ballon d’Ors, but the sky blue and white shirt of national team remains with him as a silent mourn. From 2014 FIFA World Cup final, to 2015 Copa America final to 2016 Copa America final, every chance of national glory oozed out of him. And now, his probable last chance to lift the cup is at stake, too. It can be way too cruel if Messi alone is blamed for La Albiceleste’s failures.

Lionel Messi was the best player in the last edition of the World Cup

Argentina, apart from its world famous footballers, also brews many of the finest coaches in the world, and in this World Cup, four teams other than Argentina arrive in Russia with Argentine managers, including Jose Pekerman of Colombia to Juan Antonio Pizzi at the helm of Saudi Arabia, who had played a very significant role in building today’s Argentine National Team. If Pekerman was in-charge of 2006 World Cup, Pizzi took them to 2016 Copa America final.  Both of their departure show that Argentine football lack in overall consistency of coaching, the lack of continuity in leadership, and that is the main failure that resulted them with this fall. And when Messi is being universally criticized for a missed penalty against Iceland and his helplessness against Croatia, it is high time to introspect within the potentiality, of its coaches, from Pekerman to Sampaoli.

In 2006, Pekerman’s Argentina lost a stormy quarterfinal on penalties to the hosts Germany

When a hopeless Messi made his arbitrary departure from international football with uncontrollable emotions and unfulfilled dreams, it deeply pierced millions people around the world. But one person, with the motive of bringing some change to it, with one and only important task, of convincing Messi to rethink his retirement decision from international football, stepped in as the new Argentine coach, Edgardo Bauza, who would later succeed in his pursuit. Stayed in for mere eight months, he played eight World Cup Qualifiers with the team in which they won thrice and drew twice. Now, with such a short period of coaching, that too in World Cup Qualifier matches, any coach would face the same level of pressure and difficulty. Instead of giving him time to adapt and prove he was vehemently criticised for a Messi-relied team that he could not change. Unhappy with Argentina finishing at 5th place in South American table in the WC Qualifiers, Bauza was on the spot removed from the post, after their match against Bolivia, by the then newly elected Argentine Football Association president, Claudio Tapia. And one of the reasons that manipulated him in doing so was the interest shown by Jorge Sampaoli, who gave 2015 Copa America title to Chile, in other words, one of the three scars in Messi’s forehead!!

Edgardo Bauza had influenced Messi to return to national team from his retirement

Edgardo Bauza, who brought in back the star player back to team, was sacked, hence could not keep his solemn promise to lead them to a World Cup victory.

Sampaoli: The Broken Argentine Dream?

With his admiration towards Messi, the FC Barcelona star, and his desire to work with him, Sampaoli had expressed in an interview with to Diario Ole, Argentina’s sports daily that “My dream is to be in charge of Messi, to see him every day from the touchline. It’s a unique dream to see Messi so close up, always. The form Messi us in is incredible. Who wouldn’t like to be in charge of him?” But with two matches played in the World Cup, it seems that Sampaoli is in the illusion of the dream that he turned to reality, failed to estimate the dream that Messi carried within and the pain that Sampaoli’s Chile inflicted upon him in 2015.

The Argentinians and their supporters had put complete faith in him, but preparing the team for World Cup in such a short period was difficult. And Sampaoli started experimenting with the team, even when they were on the verge to lose the World Cup entry. And fortunately, Messi could keep his dreams alive with a hat-trick that he scored against Uruguay that gave them the ticket to Russia. Argentina, with a pathetic pain of losing three finals in a short period of two years, not only needed a coach with tactics, but with emotions that understood their yearn. Sampaoli failed in both. With the boasting 3-3-1-3 formation that he had as one of his specialty, he still kept changing the formation in almost all matches and even in first two World Cup matches!! He didn’t even repeat a starting eleven at any consecutive matches. When Argentina put up great offensive talent, yet when all is at the same position, they struggle to score and Messi is on the pressure as he is the ultimate hope! And no surprise that Messi, already on pressure from millions of people, lacked his confidence. With a person who decided to quit, without anything working out, needed a way too impressive coaching rather than a confused one. And that explains the emotionless, under pressure Messi that we witnessed in the World Cup.

Sampaoli took over Argentina in May 2017

Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo, his past has already proved that Messi lacks the head high leadership qualities. While Ronaldo manages to turn his dependency as his strength, the shy and less-talkative Messi feel all the more pressured with the captaincy to deal with. And millions of fans comparing the both, it’s natural to see Messi devastated with his missed penalty, while the latter marked the commencement of his 2018 World Cup with a hat-trick joy.

A better tactic and formation would have stopped all the three goals by Croatia, in fact, they could have grabbed a win. When Sampaoli has in his team too many no. 10s, the past matches saw the central areas crowded, resulting in no real width in their attack. And it’s worth applauding that Sampaoli could deal with it in the match against Iceland. But, he could not foresee Iceland players would score by moving high up the pitch and pressing their defense, even after Isco destroyed them in the same manner against their Spain friendly. And even after the Iceland match, he kept on committing the mistakes! When Croatia blocked any short passes inside the box with their defense, Sampaoli had no solution to it. Rather after their first goal conceding, Sampaoli focused on attacking, and his attention didn’t even go on the wing spaces, which resulted in two more goals. But, Croatia, were on attacking mode till the end. This was all result of the poor tactic that he demonstrated. And Sampaoli alone is not of any blame, as with only 13 matches ahead of World Cup his time too was limited. It’s hilarious to note that Argentina in mere 8 years between 2010 and 2018, had a change of 5 coaches out of which three were in the World Cup qualifying cycle!!!

Messi’s journey to 2018 World Cup

Even when Spain funded and raised him out of his growth hormone deficiency, during National team question, he had Argentina in his heart, the real love for his birthplace. Had he chosen Spain then, he would have grabbed World Cup titles easily. But, what shaped Messi to what he is today is the Argentinian inside him. He even refuses to speak in Spanish accent, to keep intact his Argentine root. And one of the very important person who kept building him up is Gerardo Salorio, when he played the 2006 World Cup when he was just 18 years old! He was responsible for moulding Messi from U-20 to a senior footballer.

But, 2010 World Cup came to Messi with Diego Maradona, whom people always compared him with. What everybody failed to understand is when Maradona was happy to find his youth in Messi, Messi was pressurized to satisfy the expectations. Because, Messi is that stuff you could never make play under pressure. And that resulted in a goal-less World Cup for Messi. And Argentina packed up back to their country after the quarterfinals. And that World Cup gave Messi much determination to the next. He was under the growing process.

Alejandro Sebella took Messi’s Argentina to the final of 2014 World Cup in Brazil

So, when the 2014 squad flew to Brazil with Alejandro Sabella as the coaching emissary, Argentina put up a fabulous show and captured the limelight with the entry to finals. Messi, way too responsible of his captainship, brought in great performance. But an unfortunate defeat by Germany blew up their World Cup title. And another two consecutive defeats made Messi, the hopeless wandering spirit in Argentine jersey what we saw in two World Cup matches!

What disappointed Maradona?  

 Argentinian world cup winner and legend Diego Amando Maradona, always marks his presence in World Cups with his self-styled comments and criticisms. Even when, Argentina reached 2014 World Cup final, his “did not play at all” comment had gained international acclaim along with memes of Sabella’s fall during Argentina- Bolivia quarterfinals. With the fact that, he couldn’t make his team go beyond quarterfinals in 2010 World Cup, he still criticised the one who could make it till final. So at present scenario, with Sampaoli publicly pleading for forgiveness for his dreadful mistake in 2018 World Cup, Maradona leaves no chance of taking over it. He had already captured the limelight during both the matches with his gestures and expressions from the gallery. On his Television show ‘De la mano del 10’ (From the hands of 10) with Victor Hugo in Telesur tv, he criticizes the Argentina Football Federation, Sampaoli’s tactics but defends Messi very well.

“I feel much fury that cannot be expressed and makes me mad because no one who wore that jersey before can accept such a defeat from Croatia. And it is not Germany, not Brazil, not Holland or Spain.”

And with much serious note he explained, “There are people to be blamed for, the president of the Argentina Football Association, Claudio Tapia, and AFA is run by people who doesn’t know anything about football.”

But he seemed sad for Messi, and put him out of all blames saying that, “Messi played as he could play, he did what he could, and it’s difficult to solve problems of your teammates.”

Maradona is vocal against Sampaoli’s tactics. Photo Twitter

And the former Napoli star did not leave an opportunity to criticize Sampaoli, “People believed that Sampaoli was going to solve the problems of computer games, with drones, with 14 assistants. And he underlined Sampaoli’s tactics with the comments, “Argentina does not know what it plays, it has no solution at all. In midfield, in defense or in attack, Argentina created no wall, did not win the backs and could have the ball”.

He even said he wanted to meet with the players before they played, their third group match. Besides Maradona, Argentine technical director Jorge Burruchaga too wanted to replace Sampaoli with himself for their next match, but AFA discouraged it for the moment.

With just two World Cups in its captivity, and on the verge to lose the World’s best player at the time, will Argentina succeed to make a claim for this World Cup? With 2006, as his inexperience as a debutant, and in 2010, struggling under an unbalanced team, and 2014, losing the World Cup at his fingertip, will Lionel Andre Messi, be only a name that Argentinian history will forget.?

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