Whilst European champions Italy and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal must sweat it out in next March’s World Cup playoffs, Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina side have serenely booked their tickets to Qatar for the tournament after a 0–0 draw with Brazil in San Juan.
By clinching their place in the World Cup with five qualifiers still to play, the team dubbed “La Scaloneta” in the Argentine press have not only avoided the tortuous qualifying campaigns of the last two World Cups, but also completed a dream year. They ended 2021 on a 27-game unbeaten run and ended a 28-year-long racha (losing streak) without a major trophy by winning the Copa América in July.
Having lost six tournament finals during this luckless run dating back to 1993, Lionel Scaloni’s men finally managed to scratch the itch afflicting Argentine football fans for almost three decades when they beat arch-rivals Brazil in their own backyard of the Maracanã in Rio in the final.
Whilst most of the attention inevitably fell on Lionel Messi’s first senior trophy victory in the Albiceleste jersey of his country after the heartbreak of losing in four tournament finals, Argentina’s unsung hero win was coach Scaloni, who modestly said in the post-match press conference that anyone else in his position would have achieved the same result, hailing instead his ’28 warriors’.
Scaloni’s transition from relative unknown to national hero is the stuff of fairy stories. His playing career began at Newell’s Old Boys in Scaloni’s home city of Rosario, and he was a member of the Argentine team that won the 1997 Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia alongside the likes of Pablo Aimar and Walter Samuel, who also form part of Scaloni’s coaching team.
Scaloni later moved to Deportivo in Spain, where he spent the majority of his career, playing 200 games for the Galicians. The right-back found prominence in England during a six-month loan spell with West Ham in 2006 when his consistent performances helped the Hammers reach the FA Cup final against Liverpool, as well as a surprise call-up to the Argentine squad for the World Cup in Germany that year ahead of Javier Zanetti.
After retiring as a player in 2015, Scaloni began his coaching career a year later as assistant to compatriot, Jorge Sampaoli at Sevilla, following the latter in the same role when he took charge of the national team in 2017.
After Argentina’s chaotic and disastrous 2018 World Cup campaign ended with the departure of the hapless Sampaoli, the AFA turned to Scaloni, a relative coaching rookie to stabilise the country’s international football reputation whilst they found a permanent replacement.
Whilst there was a wealth of Argentine coaching talent available in the shape of Diego Simeone, Mauricio Pochettino and Marcelo Gallardo, the AFA were in no position financially to tempt any of them from existing positions at Atlético, Tottenham and River Plate whilst paying severance to Sampaoli who had signed a lucrative, long-term contract just a year before.
Charged with rejuvenating an aging squad, Scaloni made positive early progress in terms introducing an organised style of play, something that was completely lacking in Russia where the players are rumoured to have picked the team. As veterans such as Javier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuaín retired from international football, others like Marcos Rojo, Gabriel Mercado and Éver Banega were jettisoned by Scaloni, who created a new team based on midfielders Giovanni Lo Celso, Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo De Paul, and Inter striker Lautaro Martínez.
In terms of style, Scaloni made clear that tactically he was his own man. He outlined a preference for a more direct style of play, with a quick transition from defence to attack that had proved successful for France and Croatia at the 2018 World Cup, saying “it’s the style I like and it’s the moment to implant it in Argentina”, a contrast to the long-favoured preference in the country for a short-passing game built up from the midfield.
Scaloni’s first competitive challenge as caretaker came with the 2019 Copa América in Brazil. Whilst Argentina lost their opening game against Colombia in which they employed two wingers, Scaloni showed his tactical pragmatism – a feature of his time in charge of La Albiceleste – to correct his mistakes and restore the team to winning ways. Argentina qualified from their group, beat Venezuela 2–0 in the quarter-final and were unlucky to bow out to hosts Brazil in the semi following some dubious refereeing decisions.
On the strength of the progress made in Brazil, Scaloni’s reward was to have his position made permanent ahead of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers and the 2020 Copa América in which Argentina were slated to be co-hosts with Colombia. The COVID-19 pandemic saw the latter competition postponed to 2021 but, after co-hosts Colombia succumbed to social unrest and with COVID-19 levels at chronic levels in Argentina, CONMEBOL made a last-minute decision to move the Copa América to Brazil – which was hardly in a more suitable position to host the competition – arguably taking some of the pressure off Scaloni.
With just two World Cup qualifiers to fine-tune his team ahead of the tournament in which the team flew in and out of Brazil immediately before and after matches, whilst staying at their Ezeiza training complex near the airport, where the squad bonded over barbecues and reggaeton music, with popular winger Papu Gómez acting as head of entertainment.
Indeed, those two qualifiers helped Scaloni identify the missing pieces of his defensive jigsaw that helped Argentina concede just three goals on their way to Copa glory. In goal, Emiliano Martínez, who had enjoyed a stellar rise over the previous year from journeyman to FA Cup-winner and one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League, became the reliable keeper that Argentina had been seeking more years.
The Villa man’s confidence was highlighted by his heroics and sledging of opposition players during the decisive semi-final shootout against Colombia in the semi-final as he brought to mind Sergio Goycochea’s similar role in Argentina’s 1991 and 1993 triumphs.
Meanwhile, in Atalanta centre-half Cristian Romero, Scaloni has found a strong, pacy defender to act as the rock of the defence, despite injury hindering his participation in the competition.
If one thing has stood out about Scaloni’s Argentina, it has been the togetherness and absence of egos – not a familiar trait in Argentine teams of the recent past. Each player had a clear sense of both individual and collective responsibility, not least in the Copa final against Brazil in which Scaloni’s game plan was executed perfectly as players like Emi Martínez, Romero and, most notably, Rodrigo De Paul showed themselves to be leaders on the pitch.
It has also been an atmosphere in which Messi has flourished. Previously criticised when playing for the national team for a perceived lack of patriotism, and for playing as though he had the weight of the world was on his shoulders, Messi has been a man reborn. He now sings the national anthem lustily and plays with a previously unseen freedom and sense of enjoyment that saw him finish as Copa Player of the Tournament.
Speaking of his captain who gave gave everything despite playing with a hamstring injury in the semi and final, Scaloni said, “I believe that he identified with this team, that he could win or lose without lowering his shoulders.”
Scaloni’s achievements have set the tone for Argentina being serious contenders to win the World Cup in Qatar in what could be Messi’s last hurrah in an Argentine shirt. It is something the coach is already planning for, claiming that it is important that he is transparent in affirming that nobody has their place assured as looks ahead to the reality of a post-Messi future.
As such, Scaloni has left the door open to youngsters from the Olympic team like Alexis McAllister, Julián Álvarez and Pedro de la Vega to force their way into his plans, whilst established stars such as Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi, who have never fully delivered at international level, will similarly be given the opportunity to make their case. One thing is for sure, Scaloni now deserves to receive the plaudits for what he has achieved for Argentine football.
By Mark Orton @MarkAOrton