The Obituary of La Albiceleste

I could’ve seen it coming from a mile away. I wanted to believe, I really did. I forced myself to think that Jorge Sampaoli could somehow instill his intensive, complicated tactics in his players in a mere span of months. It’s like thinking you could put off studying until the week of the test, and then get an A+. No, it’s much worse than that. It’s like not showing up to class until the day of the exam, and getting hammered the night before, and thinking you could magically get an A. Like you’re somehow entitled to a passing grade. We all prayed for Nigeria to win today, which they did, so Argentina could beat Nigeria in the final game and go through. Seriously? At any rate, this should serve as a valuable lesson. Qualifying for the World Cup is a privilege, not a right. Just because you have a Gold-rated team on FIFA, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to win anything.

One had hoped that Argentina would somehow survive the qualifiers, which they did, just. In a do-or-die final qualifier, Lionel Messi led a come-from-behind win against Ecuador, with a stunning hat-trick. With all due respect to Ecuador, they have the quality of a mid-table CONCACAF side. The fact that Argentina needed Messi to activate God mode in order to get past the 8th-placed team in the qualifiers. That was when Messi was on a mission. That was when it looked like absolutely nothing could stop him; you could see it in his eyes, the way you could see it in Cristiano Ronaldo’s eyes when he zeroed in on goal before blasting his free kick past David De Gea and into the top right corner.

If Argentina needed a 10/10 Messi to get past Ecuador, they’d need a 13/10 Messi to get past Croatia, Iceland, and Nigeria, all of whom wrapped up World Cup qualification without breaking a sweat. What we have seen in the past few weeks, instead, is the worst Argentina side of its generation, and the worst Lionel Messi of his time.

While Messi carried a somewhat competent side, that could just do the basics, to three straight international finals, it appears it’s too much now. With Jorge Sampaoli seemingly at odds with every player in the locker room, and with Lionel Messi lacking in both body language and performances, Argentina seem to have buried their own graves. While the bookies may still place them as favorites on Match Day 3 over Nigeria simply due to their individual quality, they’re almost certain to lose; the only question is by how many.

Trust me, I know a dead body when I see one.

While Nigeria, for all their problems, have improved and worked around a variating system under Gernot Rohr, Argentina have declined to the point of nothingness. They are out of ideas, out of structure, they’ve more or less forgotten how to play football. They’ve certainly forgotten how to have fun while playing football.

Such a dismal showing at the World Cup reiterates the main question: why couldn’t Argentina phase out the old generation and replace it with the new one? Forget whether or not Sergio Agüero is better than Mauro Icardi, if Javier Mascherano is still better than Santiago Ascacibar, or if Enzo Pérez (ha) is better than Leandro Paredes–look at them from a psychological perspective. Losing three finals takes an incredible toll on one player mentally. Do you expect them, with all the PTSD from three consecutive heartbreaks, to go out there and play like they’ve never played for? Why not, instead, play the likes of Paulo Dybala and Lautaro Martínez, who instead of carrying emotional baggage on their shoulders, are fresh-faced and ready to start their chapter in La Albiceleste?

The tragedy is–Jorge Sampaoli had experimented with the likes of Icardi and Paredes, placing trust in them that had never been given before, but when it came down to the squad selection for the World Cup, he cut them. He went with the old guard, and he paid dearly for it. Perhaps he wasn’t given enough time. Perhaps he fiddled too much with the formation and the system. But the fact is, Jorge Sampaoli’s failure to take a risk on the less experienced, yet more exciting Argentine players, was the start of his downfall.

Argentina will face Nigeria next Tuesday, like a team of pathetic zombies meeting a badass US Army in a 1980s sci-fi film. As a change of paste, Nigeria will gun down their South American rivals, and advance to the Round of 16 once more. It’s not worth avoiding anymore, it’s not worth believing, or getting the slightest bit of hope in your hearts.

After all, three bullets to the skull will kill even the strongest soldier.

By: Zach Lowy

Photo: Reuters