A new, rather frightening era looms for Argentina. Yesterday the national team’s interim coach Lionel Scaloni announced the first Albiceleste call-ups since the debacle of the World Cup, with one name particularly conspicuous by its absence. With no permanent presence on the bench and no Lionel Messi, the rebuilding efforts after Russia begin with a fair dose of mystery and no little anxiety over what the future may hold.
Messi’s absence from the squad that will take on Guatemala and Colombia in two friendlies to be played in September on United States soil is hardly a surprise. Exhausted from his exertions over the 2017-18 season and mentally drained after yet another abortive attempt to bring the World Cup home, the Barcelona wizard and Albiceleste captain is keen to exercise a trial separation from the nation with whom he has maintained a love-hate relationship for so many years.
We will not be seeing the little No. 10 again in 2018, and will have to wait and see whether he cuts short this allegedly temporary retirement in time for next year’s Copa America and subsequent qualifying campaign for Qatar 2022. But Messi’s withdrawal at point should not be mourned; it must be taken as an opportunity for Scaloni and Leo’s Argentina team-mates to prove they can perform without the talisman on the pitch.
The composition of Scaloni’s squad confirmed that the new coach, fresh from success in the L’Alcudia Under-20s tournament alongside assistant Pablo Aimar, will begin the regeneration of the national team that neither Gerardo Martino, nor Edgardo Bauza, nor Jorge Sampaoli dared to carry out over the last four years. Young Inter strike duo Mauro Icardi and Lautaro Martínez made the cut after missing the World Cup, along with promising midfielders Leandro Paredes and Santiago Ascacibar among other fresh names. If one thing was proved beyond argument in Russia it was that the core of the team that took Argentina to the final in 2014 was worn out beyond use: breaking that side up and introducing the next generation is not only a necessary step, but a wholly positive one. Long-term thinking is not a concept synonymous with the AFA and its associates but it can no longer be avoided at this crucial junction for the Albiceleste.
The AFA, meanwhile, continues to cover itself in something less than glory. President Claudio Tapia led the institution into a not her meaningless, albeit rather less serious, diplomatic faux pas when asked to comment on the identity of the next Argentina coach. Tapia revealed supposed overtures to none other than Pep Guardiola, implying that it was the Manchester Cit y’s boss’ “fat wallet” that brought a swift end to negotiations. Whether the AFA chief believed his comments were wholly innocent, or whether he somehow forgot that in the Internet age what he opines in Buenos Aires can be read in minutes across the Atlantic Ocean in Manchester, he certainly did not endear himself to the exBarca and Bayern Munich supremo.
“Nobody has been in contact with me or my team. I am hurt by Tapia referring to my salary. The AFA president knows nothing of my situation,” Pep fired to reporters in a soft-spoken response that was nevertheless charged with venom. “In any case the coach should be Argentine and there are very good Argentine coaches.”
Just who that will be, now we can safely erase Guardiola from the list, poses yet another mystery. Ricardo Gareca’s name is another that can be struck off the list, after the Peru boss chose to renew with his adopted nation amid reports he would be handed the keys of the Albiceleste. That move is telling: with all the upheaval and chaos that has enveloped recent trainers, the Argentina job no longer allures potential hires as perhaps it once did. With no captain and no coach, the team is very much a captainless vessel at this point – but with Scaloni thrust onto the helm and the promise of fresh recruits, this undesirable scenario could yet be turned to their advantage.