The definition of insanity, Albert Einstein perhaps once opined, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By the great physicist’s reckoning the Argentine Football Association (AFA) must be positively certifiable.
The AFA moved to remove Jorge Sampaoli from his post over the past weekend, making the combustible little coach the third man to come and go from the national team in as many years. Why, then, should we expect anything different from the Selección than the chaos and disorganisation that has plagued the side almost uninterruptedly since 2016?
Sampaoli’s hold on the Argentina job was tenuous ever since that shameful breakdown in authority that accompanied his team’s 3-0 World Cup surrender at the hands of Croatia. Whatever the truth was behind rumours that from that point onwards he was stripped of coaching responsibilities and left a lame duck, there is no doubt that the Albiceleste dressing room turned on the ex-Sevilla boss, making his position extremely precarious. Subsequent last-sixteen defeat to France merely confirmed the inevitable: while it was far from a disastrous result against a well-drilled team that, indeed, went on to win the World Cup last Sunday by dispatching Croatia, it gave the AFA the excuse needed to go on the warpath the second Sampaoli returned to Argentina.
Initially the coach held out. He believed that given the chance to rebuild a tired, fractious squad in his own image – and shorn of certain figures that believed themselves the true masters of the national team – he could find the success. Indeed, whatever one thinks of Sampaoli there can be no question whatsoever over what this job meant to him on a personal level. It is the only plausible motive behind his acceptance of the poisoned chalice in the first place just 13 months ago, when no other top coach would even consider stepping into the bedlam left by AFA President Claudio Tapia and his predecessor on the bench, Edgardo Bauza.
But the AFA’s attrition tactics have borne fruit. Harrassed and harried by the press and pushed into a corner by his employers, Sampaoli decided to cut his losses.
A pay-out of just over US$1.5 million dollars, payable in seven installments, will ease the pain of his sacking, while even after losing a certain amount of prestige following the Russia debacle he should not struggle to find further employment at the top level. But it is undeniably a missed opportunity not just for the man himself, but for everyone connected with the national team.
With his departure, the AFA is already enveloped in the inevitable parade of future candidates. Lionel Scaloni and Pablo Aimar will take over immediate duties in the Under-20 L’Alcudia tournament later this month, the job foisted upon Sampaoli last week in a bid to further humiliate him and force him closer to the door. Not until July 31 will the AFA meet to, in its own words “analyse the next steps to take,” a summit that will necessarily include first discussions over who will be its fourth coach in the four years since Alejandro Sabella resigned having taken the nation to the brink of World Cup glory.
Ricardo Gareca and Matias Almeyda have emerged as the early front-runners. Both currently out of work and therefore the economical options, the pair have recently carried out fine work as the heads of the Peruvian national team and Mexico’s Chivas respectively. Others see River Plate supremo Marcelo Gallardo as the guarantee both of a fresh young face at the helm and an opportunity to impose that wonderfully vague buzzword of the moment, the ‘project’ which supposedly propelled the likes of France, Belgium and England to World Cup success.
Other inveterate candidates, Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino, are still pipe dreams, just as they were in 2016 and 2017, although that will not stop their names being mentioned while more realistic hopefuls are weighed up.
All of those named above would bring their own qualities to the table: experience, ambition, trophies, reputation. But then Sampaoli too boasted all of those attributes, plus an unprecedented five-year contract to build his project, only to be hustled out of the exit at the first sign of turbulence.
Insanity? Possibly. But it is all too well in keeping with how football has been run in recent years, stumbling from one catastrophe to another with barely enough time to catch one’s breath.