Poor Argentina: the team’s camp is a repurposed female hostel at Qatar University. Migrant workers, guarding the place like a presidential palace, wilt in the sun. The Dutch are one hostel along but, given each team’s isolation, might as well be a planet away.
Argentina’s players and staff are locked up in this cream-coloured barrack-style edifice, with endless hours to brood on the risk of elimination from the World Cup after their humiliating opening defeat to Saudi Arabia. Argentine media are branding the second group game against Mexico on Saturday a “final”. Lose, and the team’s campaign and Lionel Messi’s 17 years in blue and white are effectively over.
The Albiceleste landed here on a 36-game unbeaten run, but as with so many teams at World Cups, their first contact with tournament reality has forced them to discard all their certainties. The hostel is buzzing with conversations among players and staff about what to do. Coach Lionel Scaloni is plotting multiple changes from his initial starting line-up. Can Argentina save themselves, or are they doomed by their ancestral flaws?
The first thing to say is that they were unlucky to lose 2-1 to the Saudis. Expected goals, a metric that measures the quality of a team’s chances, were 2.45 for Argentina and just 0.21 for Saudi Arabia, according to analytics group Statsbomb. But the Saudis scored twice from improbable positions. To conclude from the result that Argentina are a bad team would be to practise scoreboard journalism. They have assets: Messi remains the world’s best player, nippy goalscorer Lautaro Martinez can serve as his foil, and in most positions, Argentina have players if not from football’s global elite than at least from the upper middle-class.
Yet even if they improve, they won’t become the world-class team they thought they might be a week ago. Their isolation from cutting-edge European football was worsened by the coronavirus pandemic and Uefa’s creation of a Nations League, which further limited Argentina’s opportunities to meet European teams.
Their players’ experience at European clubs isn’t enough. Apart from Messi. who arrived in Barcelona aged 13, most were raised in Argentine football until at least their late teens, and when they all come together without the leavening influence of foreign teammates and coaches, they display the collective flaws of their nation’s football upbringing. This frighteningly uncreative team is more Argentine than global: skilful, hard, undynamic, and playing one gear below teams such as Spain, France or England.
Until Tuesday’s defeat, Argentines liked their team’s style. La nuestra (“Ours”) they call it, a horizontal, slow game that goes back to the great San Lorenzo club sides of the 1940s (and is still revered by Argentine Pope Francis).
But as at the last World Cup, Argentina’s defence against Saudi Arabia struggled to see and execute routine forward passes. Midfielder Giovani Lo Celso, a rare player who could reliably supply Messi, misses the World Cup through injury. Without him, their lumbering advances give opponents oodles of time to cement a wall.
Argentina have long yearned for Messi to do it alone — to be a soloist like Diego Maradona, who carried an equally middling Argentina side to World Cup glory in 1986. But Barcelona turned Messi into a European collectivist footballer, who wants to combine with others. Alternatively, Argentina wish he would be a playmaking linkman with 100 touches a game, like Juan Román Riquelme of the previous Albiceleste generation. But Messi can’t do that either: at 35, he treats what is probably his last tournament as an endurance struggle.
Winning it would require him to get through six more games in 24 days. As at his clubs in recent years, he conserves his strength, calling for the ball only when he spots an opportunity for a decisive moment. Since Argentina create few opportunities, he rarely calls, and mostly just watches teammates labour. Let’s hope he drew energy from Wednesday’s visit to the hostel of his entire clan — parents, brothers, wife and sons.
Against Mexico, Scaloni is expected to overhaul his defence, ejecting the disappointing full-backs Nicolas Tagliafico and Nahuel Molina, and bringing in Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez, who is capable of hitting the sorely missed pass from defence. Their Mexican opponents, as irony would have it, are coached by an Argentine: Tata Martino, former manager of his native country and an intimate of the Messis from their hometown of Rosario.
A group game in a pop-up stadium in Doha would be no way for Messi’s international career to end, but as he has learned over four previous tournaments, World Cups are cruel.