Still time for Messi and Argentina to turn things around

Victory over Nigeria now could see Sampaoli’s disjointed side grasp a lifeline

It was close to midnight in Russia when Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina's anguished coach, made his way from the wreckage of the team dressing room to face questions about what had happened against Croatia.

By now, the theatrics of Sampaoli's high-anxiety coaching style have become one of the indelible images the World Cup.

Forty years ago, when Argentina hosted and won an evocative tournament played out against the black velvet backdrop of the country's dark and brutal military dictatorship, the figurehead was the lean and magnetic Cesar Menotti.

His image was beamed into the houses of the football countries of Europe for the first time. Regal, sharp-suited, he smoked cigarettes with the air of an auteur film director and seemed to sit through those games as if preoccupied by other, vaguely tragic concerns.

English football had maverick figures like Brian Clough and Malcolm Allison but Menotti was compelling; if the world began to think about Argentina properly that summer, then he was the perfect symbol for its complexities and appeal.

“I believe that above all a team is an idea,” became one of his most commonly quoted remarks. “And more than an idea it is a commitment. And more than a commitment it is the clear conviction that a coach must transmit to his players to defend that idea.”

It is hard not to see those words hanging judicially over the current generation of Argentina players as their unhappiness in Russia deepens by the day. Anyone who was in the stadium in Nizhny on Thursday night could see that they were witnessing a team caving in both psychologically and morally.

The concession of the first goal was down to a mind-blowing error by Willfredo Caballero, Argentina's ill-fated goalkeeper. And the flamboyance of Ante Rebic's volley to punish the mistake felt like a bad omen. It was only a goal and Argentina still had 40 minutes in which to rescue the match but it felt like a mortal wound.

Instead, the remainder of the match played out as an indictment against Sampaoli’s failure to clearly transmit whatever vision of the game he had to his players. They were lost out there, in front of a stadium that had been as rowdy as the River Plate at kick-off but now belonged to the small clusters of Croatians who were transported by Luka Modric’s goal and those last 10 minutes when Argentina’s capacity for further humiliation seemed limitless.

Sampaoli's decision to remove his blazer didn't seem to help matters and, because Argentina were so abject on the pitch, the cameras seemed constantly drawn to the sleeve tattoos on his arms. Sampaoli, like Diego Maradona, burns off a high reserve of nervous energy during games and he could not stay still through what was evolving into the worst night of his football life.

A rabble

Argentina had come here as one of the favourites for the competition and the summer in Russia had been billed as Lionel Messi’s probable long kiss goodbye to the World Cup finals. And now they were reduced to a rabble by Croatia.

What must have been going through Sampaoli’s mind in those minutes? Maradona, who stalks this team rather than follows it, had said after the draw with Iceland that Sampaoli couldn’t return to Argentina after such a disgraceful performance. What was he likely to say after this?

Sampaoli looked so distressed during the game that he looked set on being the first person out of the stadium, ready to find the darkest, latest bar in Nizhny. The strange thing is that once he sat down afterwards, he was as reflective and still as manic as he had been on the field.

He didn’t bat an eyelid as the questions came raining down like meteorites. Forty million Argentines blamed him for playing Cabellero, he was told. How did that make him feel? Did he feel shame? Did he feel embarrassed? Why are Argentina so weak emotionally? Why didn’t you pass the ball more to Messi? What do you have to say to the fans?

It was to the last question that he "begged forgiveness" but those were the words the translator used for the English speaking media. Sampaoli didn't sound or look as though he was begging anything for anyone. His main concern was with accepting absolute responsibility for the failure and, once again, from absolving Lionel Messi for any failure to deliver.

And as Argentina’s World Cup begins to flame out of the sky, the failure to liberate Messi is threatening to eclipse the failure of the team. The notion that the relationship between Messi and the Argentine public is complicated has not been reflected in the behaviour of the fans here. It’s clear that their adoration for their genius is absolute and unquestioning. In the stupidly reductive way of things, the comparisons between Ronaldo and Messi have become one of the themes of the tournament.

Great fear

On Thursday night, Sampaoli was asked why it was that Ronaldo was thriving with Portugal while Messi and Argentina floundered?

The great fear for Argentina fans is that their team exits Russia without their supreme star, their icon, having left even the faintest mark on the tournament. Even from high in the stands, Messi’s disenchantment with the match was glowing; a performance piece in itself.

After Croatia scored, he looked detached and remote: he looked like he had given up on the team – as an idea – and, more practically, as bunch of fellow professionals who could not get him the goddamn ball.

The only thing left for Argentina this weekend is that they are not out of contention. Other teams have played much better without that consolation. If Sampaoli can’t, as he accepted, work out what Argentina must do to enable Messi to thrive, then surely Messi himself has a few ideas.

They have one last chance to at least showcase the best of Argentine football. It would be a shame if Messi leaves here without one moment where he causes a sharp intake of breath around the world. And if they do defeat Nigeria and scrape through against the odds, then suddenly Argentina could be dangerous.

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