Sports Review 2018: Messi business and Argentina’s national humiliation

The shock of a 3-0 defeat to Croatia in Nizhny led to World Cup misery

Croatia’s Luka Modric  scores his team’s second  during their Group D match with  Argentina  at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. Photograph:  Clive Mason/Getty

Croatia’s Luka Modric scores his team’s second during their Group D match with Argentina at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty

 

World Cup: Argentina 0 Croatia 3 - June 21st, Nizhny Novgorod

Every World Cup has its moment of sporting catastrophe. In 2014, all the planning, money and hope imploded on hosts Brazil as they were torn asunder in a 7-1 loss by Germany – less a defeat than a national calamity.

Last summer in Russia, it was the turn of their neighbours Argentina to endure a night of humiliation on the world stage. Jorge Sampaoli’s team had already suffered a shocking setback in Moscow when they were held 1-1 by Iceland: this was to be the night when Leo Messi and Argentina got their act together.

The build-up to the game in Nizhny, formerly one of the Soviet Union’s closed cities, had been a wonderful carnival. For anyone in the stadium that night, there were three games at play – the contest between the two sides; then the suffocating attentions paid to Messi by a series of Croatian markers; and, finally, the internal war Messi was waging with himself in his painful attempts to influence the game.

There was no lurching drama about this: everyone in Nizhny had the feeling that Argentina had fallen into a bad place from the moment goalkeeper Willy Caballero – a controversial selection – gifted Croatia’s Ante Rebic with a hashed pass. It was a horrible moment, a needlessly complicated return pass when all he had to do was thump the ball clear.

Trailing, Argentina’s play became increasingly desperate, rushed and amateur, and Messi wandered through a game he had temporarily ceased to understand. In the 80th minute, Croatia’s Luka Modric scored a goal that seemed to mock Messi’s preternatural gifts and presence on the same field, feinting right and left and then letting go with a brilliant, disguised strike from distance. Argentina were a sad sight by the time Ivan Rakitic made it 3-0.

The agony of the Argentinean fans in Nizhny overwhelmed the celebrations in the arena, the thought of the national misery back home weighed heavily on the evening. When it became obvious that Argentina was about to suffer a historic football humiliation – its worst defeat since 1958 – it was impossible not to keep returning to the visible distress of Sampaoli on the sideline.

He behaved like a man who had entirely forgotten that he was manager in a football match being broadcast around the world. Instead, he looked like someone who had just gambled his entire world on a sure thing and was watching it all horribly misfire in the privacy of his living room. Sampaoli said he “would beg for their forgiveness” when he faced the media late that night.

By July, he was gone as manager. Even though Argentina still scraped through their group; even though they then engaged eventual champions France in a gripping 4-3 classic in the second round, they never quite recovered from the shock of Nizhny. It left an indelible stain on a world cup of lightness and adventure.

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