How Lionel Scaloni re-shaped Argentina into world champions
Lionel Messi was the first through, cradling the trophy he had barely let go since he set eyes on it.
And why not? It is some sight up close, the kind of thing you could hold for ever, that completes you and, in his case, completes football too. Next came Rodrigo De Paul. Then the rest, still in their kits, singing and thudding and bouncing and barging into each other, the partition walls almost caving in. Lautaro Martínez had got a fluffy mic from somewhere and was singing into it. Champagne or something fizzy was sprayed around.
“It doesn’t matter what those fucking journalists say,” they sang as they bounded past those journalists and out of there. “Because here is the national team.” Not just any national team: the world champions. “I had felt it was going to be,” Messi said. “You have to enjoy it.”
Over the last month he has done so, more than ever before, which is part of what had brought them to the final although Messi admitted that they had suffered too. But then as Nicolás Tagliafico insisted: “If you don’t suffer it doesn’t count.”
After the final, De Paul revealed that before it all had started he and Messi were sitting in the room drinking mate when he left a secret note. “I don’t know if he went to the bathroom or something,” the midfielder said, “but I wrote on a piece of paper: ‘Today, November 20, I promise you that we will be champions.’ That piece of paper must still be there in the folder in the room. I felt it.”
Not long after qualification Lionel Scaloni had spoken to Messi, through whom everything is measured – the coach admits he’s never seen a player have the impact on teammates his captain does. Among Scaloni’s key tasks is to take the pressure out of football, to relativise it. “The sun will come up tomorrow,” he repeats. But if that applies to losing, it applies to winning too. And, already Copa América champions, he was concerned that this was getting too big, expectations growing too much; disappointment could be debilitating.
“Leo said: ‘What does it matter? It’ll be fine,’”
“And that gave me incredible strength. I felt that I had to talk to him and tell him how I was feeling. Speaking to him, I felt like all was well.”Scaloni revealed.
Two days after De Paul left the note, Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia in their opening game. The competition had barely started and they already faced elimination, left on edge. They knew now that they would have to win every game. A young team made up largely of World Cup debutants stood on the verge of disaster. The greatest disaster in their history, as it was put to them in the press conference before their second game.
Despite that, and contrary to the song post-final, the criticism had not been so fierce and nor was the group so fragile as to fracture. They had gained much over four years with Scaloni. Losing the 2019 Copa América semi-final, Messi confronting officials publicly, had forged something; winning it in 2021 made them even closer.
“After the Saudi defeat, we spoke for ages and understood that there was still a long way to go,” De Paul said. Immediately after full time Messi had asked supporters to “trust in us”, insisting “this is a group that stands out for its unity, its collective strength and now’s the time to prove it, to show we’re truly strong”.
As for the Saudi Arabia coach, Hervé Renard, he insisted Argentina would still win the World Cup. Turns out, via wins against Mexico, Poland, Australia, the Netherlands, Croatia and France, he was right.
This was not just the strength of the group though. “In defeat things that you didn’t see in victory come back into the light,” Lisandro Martínez said. As one person close to the squad says:
“At that point, Scaloni could change and maybe salvage this, or not change and die. His success is that he had the personality to make that change; the group’s success is that they put up not obstacles to that: they supported it.”
From the first game to the second, Scaloni changed five starters. For the third, he gave two more players a first start. He was seeking a solution to a midfield that he had worked on for the best part of two years but could not remain the same. Having adapted De Paul, Leandro Paredes and Gio Lo Celso to new, complementary roles, he had lost Lo Celso to injury. “There is no one who does what he does,” he said. Paredes meanwhile was not in the best shape, and Argentina had already lost two men to injury.
Above all, the Saudi game had reinforced the need for freshness, physicality, energy. Applying that has transformed them.
Guido Rodríguez and Alexis Mac Allister came in against Mexico, the former playing a specific role to protect the full-backs for one game only. Enzo Fernández then started against Poland. Julián Álvarez appeared then too. That line of three – De Paul, Fernández, Mac Allister – has begun ever since, as has Álvarez.
The numbers explain it: Fernández is 21, Mac Allister 23, Álvarez 22; they had three, eight and 12 caps respectively before the World Cup. But they had played football. Injuries and lack of opportunities had limited Papu Gómez to 645 league minutes and Paredes to 385; Mac Allister had played 1,257, Fernández 1,030, plus eight games in the Champions League. This looked completely different now, those three at the heart of their success.
The shifts continued, Scaloni proving adaptable, each game offering a new tactical approach, some tweak on the team taking shape. “If you insist on dying with your idea, it will end badly,” Scaloni says. There has been 4–4-2, 4-3-3 and 5-3-2, varying systems within the same game.
Gómez was put back in against Australia, albeit only for 50 minutes. Against Croatia, aware of how they can dominate possession, Scaloni added a midfielder with the return of Paredes, Argentina almost playing a kind of 4-2-2-2, a sort of square block in the middle of the pitch. Against France in the final, Ángel Di María, who had struggled for fitness, returned, the shape shifting. Played on the left not the right, he tore into France in the hour before he was withdrawn. If that was a mistake, the excuse was exhaustion. “They understood the game very well,” Scaloni said of his players.
Not for the first time, though, there came a time for suffering, which feeds the sense of destiny but is as likely to see you lose, the margins so fine.
Messi’s goal gave them the lead against Mexico, then Scaloni admitted they had defended “tooth and nail”, the nerves not deserting them until the final whistle. Against Australia in the last 16, they eased into a two-goal lead only to suddenly find themselves under pressure late on, needing a vital intervention from Lisandro Martínez and an Emi Martínez save. In the quarter-final in 10 minutes against the Netherlands they almost threw it all away. Then there was all the shithousing. “That game was played the way it had to be – by both teams” Scaloni later insisted.
If they controlled Croatia so well as to be able to give minutes to men who did not expect them, the final – which had started so well – saw a repeat of that sudden fear out of nowhere. Scaloni said he was sorry they had not seen it out more peacefully but there was a steel, or maybe the destiny, or just the luck, to somehow secure a game they were obliged to win more than once. “Sometimes the danger come from the other side than you were expecting, but it’s always better to analyse,” the coach said. Kylian Mbappé, anonymous for 80 minutes, suddenly erupted.
And then of course there was Emi Martínez, dancing on his line before he danced through the mixed zone and out into Lusail, a world champion. The sun will come up tomorrow just like Scaloni says. When it does they’ll be nursing hangovers and wearing an extra star on their shirts, wondering about this weird dream they just had.
Source: The Guardian