Arthur Schopenhauer, a German Philosopher in the 19th century stated in his work “On the Sufferings of the World” that “unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim”. Being born as a human means that suffering is the general rule of life and not the exception. Quite a morbid take.
However, the Argentinians who conquered the world in Qatar would agree with Schopenhauer’s analysis. In post-match interviews, they often talked about how being Argentinian was to suffer. Normally you would think being born in the land of Mate and Tango would be associated with enjoying life, like their Brazilian counterparts. Yet recently, it seems that the threads of fate have conspired against Argentina and robbed them of their joy.
The political corruption, the crippling economy, the agonising near misses on the footballing stage in the last decade and the death of their most famous icon, Diego Maradona, led Argentines to believe they were to forever suffer. However, it is only by falling that we learn to pick ourselves up (a quote stolen from Alfred in Batman Begins. I’m sure he won’t mind), and in these last few years, the Selección have learnt that through constantly tripping themselves up. So much so that now, they can finally stand at the top as Campeones del Mundo.
Losing one final on the international stage would be devastating but losing three finals in a row would destroy anyone’s soul. Especially in the manner they occurred. The World Cup final in 2014, where both Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain both missed chances they would normally bury, and they ended up losing to a Mario Gotze volley in extra time. Following that, they lost the Copa America finals in 2015 and 2016 to penalties, with Messi infamously sending one way over the bar.
The supernatural is often used to describe inexplicable events. In this case, this seemed like the only plausible explanation. How could players who are all world-class players for their clubs, not replicate this form for their country? The bigger question was how could the greatest player to ever touch a football, who has won everything on the domestic level multiple times over, lose four finals with the national team? A lot of fans attributed these losses to a curse. Whatever the reason for it, it seemed like an impossibility to fail. Still, fail they did, with most of the blame falling at the feet of one man.
We often think of professional athletes as superhuman. Being able to drown out all the noise which surrounds them and just tune it out due to their otherworldly ability. But Messi in 2016 showed this isn’t the case with his shock retirement from the national team. He stated how his children kept asking him why he wasn’t liked in Argentina, and how he didn’t feel love or acceptance from his own people.
The accusations levelled against him was that he was more Catalan than Argentine. That he never had that fire in his stomach and that he was too stoic. He never had that “Viveza Criolla”. A Spanish term which translates to artful lying. That cunningness to get one over the opposition. One that Maradona had in abundance. (I would know, I’m English).
These accusations clearly hurt La Pulga. In recent years, however, he has shaken off these claims and became truly accepted by his home country. From screaming at Yerry Mina, to “dance now” after he missed his penalty in the Copa America Semi-final, to asking Wout Weghorst “what are you looking at stupid” and telling the Dutch giant “Keep moving, idiot” after the penalty shootout win against the Netherlands. This was a side we never saw from the little genius beforehand.
With him inadvertently introducing Argentinian street slang to the world. What came to mind immediately to those in his home country, was that he finally resembled Maradona in these emotional explosions. Trying to describe what Maradona meant to Argentines would be impossible. How you can describe a man who led his country to glory in the World Cup of 1986 in what is known as the greatest individual campaign in World Cup history?
A man who scored two of the most infamous goals in history against England of all nations. A country who Argentina was warring over ownership of the Falkland Islands, just four years before this match-up. Scoring with the hand of God, subsequently made him a God in his home country, with a religion founded in his name.
The epitome of an angel with a dirty face. Such was his importance, that his death was followed by three days of national mourning. He cast a huge shadow, not over just Messi, but the whole national team, as his mythical exploits were the last time the Seleccion won the World Cup, until last year. Ever since Scaloni took charge after the disastrous 2018 World Cup, everything changed for Argentina.
Scaloni cultivated a group of players who may not have been as talented as the generation before them but were willing to run themselves into the ground to win it all. The midfield of Rodrigo De Paul, Giovanni Lo Celso, Leandro Paredes, Enzo Fernandez and Alexis McAllister ran like greyhounds in midfield to let Messi cast his spells using that wondrous left foot, without any need to look over his shoulder.
Backed up by the aggressive and consistent centre-back duo of Cristian Romero and Nicolas Otamendi (aggressive being an understatement) and the trash-talking Emiliano Martinez in goal, this team was willing to lay it all on the line to bring their country and captain happiness. Quite literally so, with the enigmatic goalkeeper stating, “I want to give him life, I want to die for him.” And De Paul stating: “When he becomes your captain, you’d go to war for him if he asked you to.” Being asked to suffer for him? Easy.
This generation of players who helplessly saw their beloved national team lose so many finals were on a mission to ensure that never happened again. They turned the pain and heartbreak of the previous decade on its head. They snarled, kicked, clawed, fouled, and outplayed many teams on a 36-game unbeaten run. This resulted in the Copa America win of 2021. In a year that Argentina was ravaged by the Coronavirus, football seemed to be the only escape for residents.
Messi and company didn’t just end their barren run which stretched to 1993. They beat archrivals Brazil, in the final at the Maracanã. A dream scenario which secured bragging rights and the singing of “Brazil, decime que se siente”, which translates to “Brazil, tell me how it feels”. Ouch.
The final was a brutal one with many Argentine players seemingly going in for the kill in every tackle, especially against Neymar who bore the brunt of these challenges. Di Maria, a figure who after scoring the winner in the Olympics in 2008, seemed to only suffer pain with the national team, by missing the World Cup Final in 2014 due to injury and getting injured in the 2015 Copa America final. However, he put these demons to bed by scoring a wonderful chip over Ederson.
Afterwards, the Argentines sat back, defended, and suffered wave after wave of Brazilian attacks. Romans 8:18 – What we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed to us later. And glory came to La Albiceleste. The 28-year hunt for a trophy ended. But in 2022 we saw that to obtain the ultimate glory, they would have to endure much more pain.
The ability to remain steadfast in the face of immense pressure is something which has characterised La Scaloneta. Beforehand, it appeared the national team was destined to drown in the face of adversity. However, in the World Cup, they manoeuvred against it. Wave after wave they looked like they were going to be shipwrecked, but with insane composure, they saw and overcame the worst the cruel, yet beautiful game can give them.
After the humiliating loss to Saudi Arabia, which ended their 36-game unbeaten run, it seemed like they were going to crash out of the group stages. In hindsight, this loss was a blessing in disguise. It amped up the pressure and forced these players to treat every game as if it was a final. A very overused football cliché but in a tournament, this rings heavily true.
It seemed this pressure overwhelmed them against Mexico until another piece of Messi Magic rescued them. After then, the pressure valve was released. Against Poland, they dominated even though Messi missed a penalty. 2-0 in truth flattered the Poles. The knockout stages were the most dramatic you could even imagine. Firstly, against Australia, after being 2-0 ahead, they required a last-second save from Martinez to stop it from being 2-2. This was after squandering many chances to kill the game off. (Looking at you Lautaro Martinez).
Then, from seemingly cruising past the Netherlands to suddenly conceding a 110th-minute equaliser should’ve killed off the morale of any team. Similarly in the final, after winning 2-0 and being by far the better team, and then suddenly conceding two in two minutes to the supernova that is Kylian Mbappe. Having virtually one hand on the trophy to suddenly looking like losing it all should’ve killed off this team, but insanely it did the opposite.
In every game I’ve seen, any situation in which like the one above occurred, the team that concedes the comeback goals, often loses the game. Famous examples include Liverpool against Milan in the famous 3-3 in Istanbul. Manchester United against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final and recently, Real Madrid against any of their knockout opponents in their umpteenth Champions League win last season. Yet, this team fought against the grain, it fought against the heartbreak of 2014, 2015 and 2016 and flipped normality into absurdity.
After conceding these gut-wrenching goals against the Netherlands and France, Argentina regrouped and created various chances. Like the players expected this to happen and were unexpectedly prepared for it. That in the back of their heads, they expected the curse associated with the team will pop its ugly head out of nowhere and try its best to crush this set of players, after giving them a taste of glory. Surely for even the evilest of footballing gods, this would have been too much. Maybe we all should’ve listened when the players said being Argentinian is to suffer.
This came to its ultimate form when Randal Kolo Muani was one on one with Emiliano ‘Dibu’ Martinez, and with his left calf, stopped a buzzer-beater for the French. Normally it’s someone else’s left leg winning the game for them, but an aspect of the game which is lost on a lot of people is that football is a team game, which meant that it was someone else’s turn to rescue Argentina.
Finally, it came to the shootouts. Where Argentina failed in 2006 against Germany, and in 2015 and 2016 against Chile. The most debilitating way of losing a game but also the most exhilarating way of winning it. Even in these tense moments, the players were calm. Their trust in Dibu was unwavering.
His penalty-saving exploits for Aston Villa and against Colombia in the Copa America made it seemingly impossible to win against him in this situation. His trash-talking antics have been labelled as “unsportsmanlike”, but in my opinion this is incorrect. How can a man who is willing to do anything he can to ensure he wins be anything but sportsmanlike?
Messi going first and sending Hugo Lloris the wrong way set the tone. If the man whose number one weakness throughout his career has been penalties can coolly slot the ball in, then how could the others who promised to die for him on the pitch fail to follow suit?
Dibu did so by first saving Kingsley Coman’s penalty and then seemingly getting into the head of Aurélien Tchouaméni, by throwing the ball away and trash-talking him till the Madrid star pulled his shot wide. Over the top? Maybe. But I believe a World Cup medal washes away any sense of guilt or shame the Villa goalkeeper feels.
A nation held its breath when Gonzalo Montiel stepped up to take the winning kick. Score and he’d be immortalised. Miss and he’d be vilified. A no-look penalty from the right back sealed the win. Yes, that’s right. A nation which didn’t win a world cup for over 36 years won its third one, from a no-look penalty from their backup right back. So much for curses.
Returning from the brink of death once is seen as a miracle. What’s it called if you do it more than 3 times? The Saudi loss, the Wout Weghorst cameo and the Kylian Mbappe hat-trick all should’ve doomed this team into oblivion. Yet, against momentum, history and curses, this team managed to fight through it all and become Copa America and World Cup winners.
They would have to be seen as favourites for the Copa in 2024 if Messi decides to carry on. Not a bad legacy for a team and a player who were written off as perennial bottlers. All this just goes to show, Argentina can never do things the easy way, but then again, where’s the fun in that?
By: Abu Yasin / @Abuy2j
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Nelson Almeida – AFP