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26 Jun 2018

Argentina: A team without identity, forever searching for their soul

Argentina: A team without identity, forever searching for
their soul

After Argentina's humiliating 3-0 defeat against Croatia on Thursday, the future is beginning to look increasingly bleak. Where do they go from here?

REUTERS/Matthew Childs

By the end, there was no style, no substance, no identity. There was nothing. A group of assorted individuals - some more talented than others - none of them appeared to know what they were doing.

“The team is wrong, it’s just wrong,” said Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone, and few disagreed. Argentina did little right on the night and paid the price: a 3-0 loss against a Croatia side that capitalised mercilessly on their opposition's failings.

Jorge Sampaoli stood on the sidelines, his heavily tattooed arms crossed, with a look somewhere between resignation and despair. "I would beg fans for their forgiveness," he said after the game. "I am responsible." And again, few disagreed.

REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

There will now, inevitably, be a period of soul searching. The reaction of fans and the media was one of anger and disillusionment and this, according to many, is the worst Argentina team there has ever been.

The newspapers back home were scathing in their criticism.

Ole, the sports daily based in Buenos Aires, wrote: “They’re the knights of the anguish that pains the soul of so many Argentinians that travelled across the world with the dream of at least fighting for the cup.”

"We can play worse than we did against Croatia. We can suffer one of the biggest howlers of World Cup history," came the view of writer Diego Macias. "We can see the best player have the worst game of his career."

REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Little focus was on Croatia. Their performance was impressive, but failing to win this game, given the shambolic nature of the team they were playing, would have been more difficult. In the aftermath, people wanted to talk about the titanic, not the iceberg.

From outsiders, there is a morbid curiosity. Argentina, a nation of unique footballing history, a nation with two World Cups to their name, appear in disarray.

It is so unusual to see an Argentina side so inept, so undeniably average, that the prevailing sentiment is inevitably one of surprise.

If Argentina had been analysed more closely prior to the tournament, however, their collapse in the group stage might have been expected. They scraped through qualifying, relying on a Lionel Messi hat-trick against Ecuador in the final group game to secure third place.

REUTERS/Matthew Childs

They finished just two points above Chile in sixth, and scored just 19 goals in 18 games: the same number as Venezuela, who finished bottom. By comparison, Brazil scored 41.

What is more unusual than an eminently poor Argentine team, though, is an Argentine team without identity. The history of Argentine football cannot be told without the philosophical, ideological disputes between coaches, between fans and players.

Identity is synonymous with the sport in Argentina perhaps more so than anywhere else.

It began with La Nuestra, a style based on skill and extravagance that developed from the early days of football in the country. The sport had, of course, been introduced to Argentina by a Scotsman: Alexander Watson Hutton, in the late 19th century, at a school in Buenos Aires. At first, it was known as "the animalistic game of football."

Argentina quickly embraced the sport, though, and, in the early 20th century, made efforts to move away from its Anglo roots, to make it their own.

It is ironic, then, as Jonathan Wilson pointed out in a piece for the Guardian, that "in their frenzied desperation on Thursday, Argentina resembled nobody so much as England."

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

In the 1930s, though, Argentine football was inherently romantic, idealistic. La Nuestra thrived amid the isolationism of the country's president, Juan Peron: there were no outside influences to draw on. The exuberant football was distinctly Argentine.

Then came the antithesis.

In 1958, a skillful but naïve Argentina team, weakened by the number of players who had switched national allegiance, travelled to the World Cup in Sweden. There they were beaten 6-1 by Czechoslovakia, and the result was the birth of 'anti-futbol.'

Victorio Spinetto began the movement and influenced Osvaldo Zubeldía, whose Estudiantes side of the late 1960s were renowned for their robust, defensive and almost thuggish approach to the game.

In that team, Carlos Bilardo was a central figure. And it was he who, having made the transition from player to coach, became the idealogue of 'anti-futbol.'

Bilardo was, throughout his managerial career, engaged in an ideological dispute with Cesar Luis Menotti, the erudite romanticist who represented the remnants of La Nuestra. The two opposing ends of the philosophical spectrum - unapologetic pragmatism vs inherent idealism - came to define Argentine football.

Bilardisme against Menottisme.

REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

It was, of course, like any such dichotomy, oversimplified. But both Bilardo and Menotti were vehement in their beliefs, putting across their ideas with conviction and assertiveness. During both of these widely different coaches' tenures, Argentina had an identity. 

It is no coincidence that between 1974 and 1990, Argentina had just two coaches: Menotti for six years and Bilardo for eight. During that time, they won two World Cups. Each coach had opposing ideas, but both had time to implement them, to drill them into their teams, to eventually convince those who doubted them.

In effect, the country's two most successful coaches represented Argentine football: a game of ideas, thoughts and identity. Now, there is almost nothing left. The ideas are convoluted and confused. There is no structure, no consistency.

There is no identity.

If you were to ask the common football fan what Argentina represent now, they would likely struggle to find an answer. It is, and has been for some time, a group of players playing without purpose and self-belief, hoping for a moment of brilliance from the man at the centre of it all: Lionel Messi.

REUTERS/Murad Sezer

His inability to have an impact - so far - at this World Cup will inevitably be the focus, but far more concerning is that Argentina have become so dependant on him, that there is such a paucity of inspiration from elsewhere on the pitch.

In 1986, Diego Maradona was the key man, but the rest of Bilardo's team did not rely on him solely to produce. They had Jorge Valdano, Jorge Burruchaga, Oscar Ruggeri, to name just a few.

Sampaoli has failed to put across his ideas eloquently, and he has failed to create a team focused on the collective, not just one player. That is, in part, because Argentina have for years now been in a constant state of fluctuation.

Over the last 13 years - the span of Messi's international career - there have been eight coaches. That is not conducive to stability, particularly when many differ so significantly in approach.

REUTERS/Martin Acosta

At the last World Cup, in 2014, Alejandro Sabella opted to set up defensively, to remain compact in the hope that Messi would give Argentina the edge. It nearly worked. They were beaten narrowly in the final against Germany.

And then came two Copa America final defeats. But it was never convincing. There was always a sense that Argentina were treading water, just doing enough to avoid an impending descent into mediocrity.

Sampaoli has attempted to implement his extremist, radical ideas with nothing to base them on. His success with Chile was largely due to the fact that Marcelo Bielsa had warmed the team up for Sampaoli, introduced a way of playing that was built upon.

It was a process; Argentina tried to skip that phase and it has backfired.

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Argentina have not won a trophy since 1993, and the World Cup has eluded them since the success of 1986. The decline is not inexorable, but it is clear that things must be done differently if they are to return to the pinnacle of international football.

At the present moment, everything feels rushed, frenzied, panicked.

Messi is 31 now and might not play at another World Cup. A number of other talented players are ageing too, and there is no guarantee that those who replace them will be of the same standard. There is a sense of desperation: Argentina want success before it is all too late.

But that has resulted in a lack of patience, an inability to look beyond the immediate future and plan. Identity, thought, pausa, has been sacrificed in search of something more tangible. As a result, Argentina are quickly losing their sense of self.

"The team, above all, is an idea," Menotti once said. Argentina, at this moment, are without one.

Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss all the action from Day 13 of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.