One of the most beautiful things about football is its unpredictability. Four years ago, during the 2018 World Cup held in Russia, Argentina’s national football team was an absolute mess, having burned through a generation of great players including Lionel Messi, who even suggested he could retire from international football (and briefly did). One of the most unpopular managers of the last several decades, Jorge Sampaoli, was finally sacked and replaced by an inexperienced former national team player few remembered, Lionel Scaloni. Born in the province of Santa Fé and with a past that included a spell with Newell’s Old Boys football club. Few, if any, expected Scaloni to last more than a few matches as head coach. Today, he’s arguably the most successful one in the national team’s entire history, the only one to boast World Cup and Copa América titles. Furthermore, both Lionels have become indisputable heroes in Argentina, with Messi consolidating his global superstar status probably beyond any other living person today. The scenes of absolute madness and euphoria seen in the streets of Buenos Aires over the last several days – but also across the globe even in places that have barely any connection to Argentina whatsoever – are a demonstration of the admiration and passion generated by Leo and ‘ La Scaloneta,’ as the team has been dubbed. For whatever reason, football fans across the globe have connected with this team and its leader, learning to suffer along with them to ultimately receive the satisfaction of lifting the most important title in football, the world’s most popular sport. That suffering, in large part, identifies with the way Argentines live their football lives, and what makes us the most intriguing fans, World Cup after World Cup.
It’s important to go back to the beginning of this story in order to understand how it played out. In Argentina there is a “grieta” or polarized ideological position about everything. Football isn’t the exception. Do you prefer to win at all costs, or to play well, even if you’re defeated? That division is associated with the two most important managers in the country’s history, César Luis Menotti (the purist) and Carlos Salvador Bilardo (the pragmatist) both of whom were in large part responsible for winning the nation’s two previous World Cups (Argentina ’78 and Mexico ’86). One of the other major issues dividing the football community was Diego Maradona’s status as the greatest of all times (or GOAT GOAT ), with Messi proving to be a football demigod in club play but unable to scale the same heights on the international stage. For years Messi had been harshly criticized by football journalists and fans for not performing for ‘La Selección’ in his typically exceptional fashion, failing to reproduce his form at club level that had attracted so many fans (many of them Argentine) during his spell with FC Barcelona.
It is unfair and part of a culture that only values victories to claim the Albiceleste had been a failure for the last few decades, unable to clinch a national team title since the 1993 Copa América and a World Cup. When Scaloni took over, the inevitability of failure had taken over the local football fan’s heart given back-to-back defeats in three consecutive finals (World Cup 2014 held in Brazil against Germany, the Copa Ámerica 2015 in Chile against the host nation, and the Copa Ámerica Centenario in 2016 against Chile once more). When Scaloni took over from Sampaoli, the team’s performance at Russia 2018 had been disastrous while their relationship with the fans, and the media, was broken. Messi, who turned 35 in 2022, would be too old to lead the team to victory in Qatar. Scaloni himself was not qualified for the job and had been a part of the catastrophic Sampaoli administration. It felt as if there was no way out of that nightmare.
In spite of the constant criticism, Scaloni drew together a coaching staff full of other heavy-hitting ex-national team players including Pablo “the Clown” Aimar, Walter “the Wall” Samuel and Roberto “the Mouse” Ayala. The head coach, who had a much less successful career as a player, was dubbed “the Horse” by his teammates at Deportivo La Coruña. By no means was he a household name for most Argentines. They rejuvenated the squad that many contemptuously called Messi’s “group of buddies,” and brought along a generation of younger, unknown players. There was little faith. Even Maradona, Argentina’s football God, once blasted Scaloni saying in an interview that he can’t even “direct traffic,” mocking his capacity to coach the team. By the time we got to Qatar 2022, only Messi and Ángel Di María remained from the side that lost the 2014 World Cup final.
Winning the 2021 Copa Ámerica at the mythical Maracaná stadium in Rio de Janeiro, beating none other than arch-rivals Brazil, finally gave the national team its confidence back. It wasn’t beautiful football, but it was effective. Messi was surrounded by a team that relied on him, but also helped out, in particular in high pressure situations. The team wasn’t flashy — they scored only one goal in five of the seven matches — but it was effective and defensively solid, conceding only three goals in the whole tournament.
With the support of their people behind them, the group led by Scaloni and Messi arrived in Qatar on the back of a 36-game unbeaten streak, two titles under their arms (if we include the Finalissima), and an “easy” group awaiting . But Saudi Arabia, one of the weakest national teams at the competition, stunned Argentina with a 2-1 victory that raised the alarm and generated that feeling of inevitability among fans. What came next was a progressive and arduous return to that efficient and even dominating style of football the team had grown accustomed to. Scaloni realized he needed to renovate his team once again, brought in a few youngsters, changed the shape, and found the answers he needed. The team reconstructed itself, finally finding its best version of itself in the final.
The level shown against Netherlands, Croatia, and France, during large parts of those matches, was superlative, even if some of those teams boasted better squads than Argentina.
Scaloni found a midpoint between playing beautiful football and doing anything to win, sometimes taking control of possession, at others giving the ball to the other team. There was a certain fragility, particularly in the second halves of matches, that brought back “the fear.” Fortunately in some cases, because of merit in others, Messi and the rest of them fought back and overcame moments of extreme tension. The team never managed to truly close out matches, but when the going got tough, Messi generally led the way, accompanied by a strong midfield — Enzo Fernández, Rodrigo De Paul, Alexis MacAllister — and youngster Julián Álvarez providing the energy up front. The defense remained strong, with aggressive full backs, while Emiliano “Dibu” Martinez produced more than a couple of brilliant saves, not to mention dominating both penalty shoot-outs.
Messi, who has been questioned throughout his career, has finally become football’s global hero. No longer forced to compete with Maradona or Cristiano Ronaldo, he’s now the leader of a young team that has idolized him for over a decade — most of them were just kids when he debuted in a World Cup. On the pitch he’s proven to be on a different plain from nearly everyone, maybe except Kylian Mbappé who nearly snatched the title away with a brilliant display. Off the pitch Messi showed the leadership, passion, and even aggression that Argentines have always asked of him. He has finally become a prophet in his homeland, a condition he had achieved almost everywhere else a football fan exists.
Somewhere between three and five million people are thought to have taken to the streets to receive the team when they arrived home from Qatar. Despite not being able to make it into downtown Buenos Aires, the squad felt the affection of their fans, and even though the government authorities were unable to plan a reception at the Casa Rosada, no major incidents occurred, in large part illustrating the level of happiness and unity the World Cup victory generated. While it is just football, the relationship between the people and Messi, Scaloni and the squad are the envy of politicians, businessmen, journalists and all of civic society. Of course this can only happen if one wins, but at the same time it has allowed people to recognize that victory can be built on the back of effort, sacrifice, suffering, and a lot of talent. Because of the importance of football to many Argentines, this victory transcends the sport, even if Scaloni tries to tell everyone it’s just a game. It is true that there has been a global pandemic, constant economic crises, inflation around 100 percent, and several other problems. There’s a whole generation of Argentines who haven’t lived through moments of economic boom, of constant success, and of football glory at the national team level. Now they can at least tick that one off, at least for the next four years.
This piece was originally published in the Buenos Aires Times, Argentina’s only English-language newspaper.