Three coaches took the reins during this tortuous qualifying campaign to reach the 2018 World Cup, directed from above by three presidents at the Argentine Football Association (AFA). And three consecutive draws, all bitterly disappointing, had left the Albiceleste on the brink of disaster going into the final game against Ecuador.
Thankfully, however, when Lionel Messi is around there is always a solution at hand. Three goals from the Barcelona superstar secured the necessary three points to send Argentina to Russia 2018 with a 3-1 victory in Quito on Tuesday – leaving the team in third place no less, behind Brazil and Uruguay in the CONMEBOL standings.
It was an enthralling end to what had been a tough run from start to finish. But those final images of jubilation should not cover up the failings in local football, which almost led to a catastrophic elimination from the finals.
The most obvious symptom of the collective malaise that has hit La Selección was its impotence in front of goal. Only Messi has managed to hit the net for Argentina this year in competitive matches, and until Tuesday his sole goal of 2017 had come from the penalty spot. The failure to kickstart an attack laden with talent puzzled Gerardo Martino, cost Edgardo Bauza his job and posed Jorge Sampaoli a dilemma almost as soon as he took over.
Mess i can paper over the cracks, as he proved so emphatically in Quito, but when he is anything less than his magnificent best it is still hard to see from where inspiration can come.
“I told the team: Messi does not owe us a World Cup, football owes Messi a World Cup,” beamed a relieved Sampaoli after the final whistle.
The coach’s jubilation was understandable. Sampaoli is keen to impose long-term changes on the Argentina team, a root-and-branch overhaul; but none of those ambitious plans would have held weight with a public ready to bay for blood in the event of failure. He would almost certainly have been out of a job before the team plane landed back in Buenos Aires, leaving Argentina shaping up for the task of picking their fourth coach in little over a year. But thanks to Messi, and the valuable contribution of several team-mates – Enzo Pérez and Marcos Acuña were among the unlikelier heroes in Ecuador, while Ángel Di María once more put in one of his better performances for Argentina at altitude – that scenario has been averted. But a lot of work still needs to be done.
Positive in Viamonte. Just as Martino and Bauza came and went, so have Luis Segura and interim AFA president Armando Pérez. Now Claudio Tapia taken the big job, but he has failed to make any real changes in the ailing local game. The presence of security barriers outside the AFA headquarters on Tuesday, in preparation for potential elimination and a subsequent lynch mob, says much about the public opinion of those in charge, while Tapia’s lauding of a “witch-doctor” who travelled with the team to ward off bad omens in Ecuador summed up the stone-age mentality that still afflicts many at the top table of Argentine football.
Who would bet, for instance, against the same ban on away fans that has been in place since prior to the 2014 World Cup remaining up to Russia and beyond? For four years the draconian regulation has been imposed, with only sporadic and arbitrary exceptions, criminalising regular fans for the deeds carried out by the organised mafias that still hold sway in boardrooms across the Primera División.
It will be easier for a River Plate fan to catch a plane to Russia and watch Pérez next year than to travel across Buenos Aires and catch an away Superclásico at Boca’s La Bombonera. Lower down the divisions, too, the work on stadium safety promised in the wake of the tragic death of San Martín de Burzaco’s Emanuel Ortega, after crashing into a perimeter wall, remains incomplete, more than two years after that tragic event.
Qualification for the World Cup deserves to be celebrated. Nobody can begrudge Messi his exultant celebrations in the Argentina dressing room after a magical hat-trick, or Enzo his tears at pitch-side in sheer joy and relief. But the nation’s football problems must not be swept under the carpet as a result.
Tuesday’s cheers could very easily have turned to tears and recrimination; now, with the luxury of a World Cup place in the bag, it is time to begin the hard work – on and off the field – that the game is crying out for.