Two momentous events were about to unfold, which would change the course of the Argentina National team. The first was marked in 1977 when a 16-year-old Diego Armando Maradona made his debut for the national team. The second one was the 1978 World Cup. Argentina had been awarded hosting rights and the FA had turned to manager César Luis Menotti to lead La Albiceleste.
His decision to leave Maradona out of the squad has unknown motives to this day, with some speculating he was put under pressure by the military junta. The same junta was at the heart of the controversy regarding this World Cup, which is viewed as one of the most disgraceful in the history of the tournament. Much like in 2022, FIFA insisted on hosting the tournament in a repressive totalitarian state, whose regime was responsible for thousands of deaths.
Another similarity was that the junta needed this tournament to legitimize themselves and gain prestige on the international stage. During the tournament, many teams complained of the hosts being refereed preferably, whilst the hosts would always play their games in the evening after knowing all the other results from their groups. Argentina advanced to the second group round by defeating Hungary and France and losing to Italy.
In the second round, they were drawn in a group with Poland, Brazil and Peru. Victory against Poland, a draw against Brazil and the 4-1 defeat of the Peruvians at the hands of Brazil meant Argentina needed a big score line to reach the final. Amidst allegations of grain shipments to Peru and unfreezing of Peruvian bank accounts, the game ended 6-0 for Argentina. In the final, they would meet the Netherlands, who were without Johan Cruyff.
The Dutch maestro did not travel to Argentina, having been the victim of a kidnapping attempt a few months before. Speculations of threats to Cruyff were also rife. In the final Mario Kempes was instrumental, scoring two goals and the Argentinians went on to win 3-1. One year later Menotti lead them to the Youth World Cup, winning it with Maradona in the ranks.
The 1982 World Cup, however, would not be as sweet, as they would exit the tournament in the second round amidst tensions in the dressing room between the older and younger players. The English-Argentinian rivalry saw its height during these years, as the Falklands war was unfolding as the 1982 World Cup was starting and four years later one of the most famous World Cup incidents occurred.
At the 1986 tournament, Argentina progresses out of a group containing Italy, Bulgaria and South Korea and after a heated clash against Uruguay, they were to face England in the quarterfinals. Maradona would score two goals in that game, the Hand of God and the most beautiful goal of all time and Argentina were through.
Belgium were dispatched in the semis and Germany in the final. Maradona’s talent propelled the national team to a second title in eight years. In the next four years, their performances would dip drastically and at the 1990 World Cup, the squad looked shaky, with many of the players, including Maradona, playing through injuries.
Sergio Goycochea was arguably their best player making a number of saves against Brazil in the first knockout round and saving penalties in the shootouts in the quarters and semis against Yugoslavia and Italy. In the final, however, Germany would get their revenge. In a tough and brutal game, a late German goal from a spot kick would add a third star to the white jerseys.
A new era was about to begin with Basile, who sought to rejuvenate the squad replacing manager Bilardo and Maradona retiring. One year later, Argentina broke their 32-year drought in the Copa America by winning back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1993. Maradona had returned to the national team after his drug troubles but was not included in the 1993 squad.
The qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup was disastrous, with Colombia topping the group and drubbing Argentina 5-0. This sent La Albiceleste to a playoff round against Australia, prompting El Gráfico the most important sports magazine of Argentina, to print a completely black cover with only “Vergüenza” (“Shame”) spelled out.
Maradona was recalled to the squad before the games against Australia and the team qualified for the tournament. In the US they won their first two games against Greece and Nigeria, but lost Maradona after the second game due to a failed drugs test. The last group game ended in defeat at the hands of Bulgaria, before Romania knocked them out in the round of 16.
Despite the previous heartbreak and Maradona’s retirement, the team went into the 1998 World Cup with a strong claim to being the favourites, with players like Batistuta and Simeone in great form. Three wins in their group, against Japan, Jamaica and Croatia, with no goals conceded lined them up for a clash with their second archrivals England.
Of course, we needed some controversy for this rivalry and this game provided. In the second half, with the score tied at 2-2, David Beckham was sent off for kicking at Diego Simeone. The score remained unchanged, despite the English squad being one man down, but the Argentinians ultimately won on penalties.
In the next round, it would be all over for them, with Dennis Bergkamp scoring the winner for the Netherlands. The next four World Cup tournaments would end in heartbreak for La Albiceleste, the 2002 tournament, in particular, where they exited in the group stage. The 2006 World Cup marked the first tournament of Maradona’s spiritual heir and arguably the best player of all time, Lionel Messi. He would, however, take much longer than his superstar predecessor would in order to lift the famous trophy.
On the World Cup stage, Germany became the scourge of Argentina, knocking them out on penalties in the quarters in 2006, thrashing them 4-0 again in the quarters in 2010 and defeating them in the 2014 final. At the 2018 World Cup, the team performed horribly, drawing against Iceland in the groups, losing 3-0 to Croatia, beating Nigeria in the final group stage match, and being eliminated at the round of 16 by eventual winners France.
The Copa America would not be any kinder to La Albiceleste and their new superstar, suffering another drought lasting from 1993 to 2021. As in any good story, the hero needs to face adversities in order to earn his ultimate prize. By the time the 2020s rolled around, it seemed that Argentina’s hero had faced defeat at the highest stages, with parts of the public turning against him. However, Messi would have the last laugh. Lionel Scaloni’s appointment marked a change in the fortunes of the squad.
The relatively inexperienced coach would foster a sense of unity and never say die attitude amongst his players and together with his superstar, he would lead them to the 2021 Copa America and the 2022 World Cup. It remains to be seen how Argentina will cope with the future loss of Lionel Messi, but for the time I think I can speak for most football fans when I say that I look forward to seeing him don the sky blue and white jersey with three stars on it.
By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Nelson Almeida – AFP