The Argentine Football Association (AFA) still seems to be stumped on the best way to handle their much-maligned coach, but at least have stumbled upon a short-term solution. Everyone’s favourite World Cup villain will be sent into temporary exile in Spain, condemned to a footballing purgatory which might just give him a chance to partially redeem himself after such vicious criticism over the past few weeks – or equally could finally push him over the edge.
Sampaoli and the AFA sat down this week to a tense meeting, cloistered away from the prying eyes of the vulture-like sporting press. This only served to send the rumour mill once more into overdrive: at one point it was openly reported that Claudio Tapia and Daniel Angelici had informed the trainer that his time was up at the head of the Argentina. But when Sampaoli finally emerged from the summit he remained in charge, apparently eluding his enemies with a proficiency that few Albiceleste players managed to show during that disappointing, truncated campaign in Russia.
It goes without saying, of course, that if it were in that pair’s power to remove the coach, Sampaoli would already be packing his bags. The prohibitive severance clause included in a five-year contract signed as recently as 2017 – a deal fit for the “best coach in the world” as he was dubbed by Tapia in those heady, far-off days – makes a clean break from the cash-strapped AFA’s side all but impossible. Sampaoli, meanwhile, justifiably feels that he deserves the chance to make amends for a World Cup that was marked by tactical hesitation and rifts within the squad but otherwise finished completely in line with realistic expectations. If Tapia sees it differently, he is welcome to open the chequebook and send him packing US$20 million richer; if not, he must grin and bear the frenzied little tactician’s workings as he prepares to rebuild a tired, faction-riven Argentina team almost from scratch.
Nobody can accuse the AFA president of lacking imagination in his battle, paraphrasing Henry II, to rid himself of this turbulent trainer. Tapia’s latest gambit is to send Sampaoli on a humbling trip with Argentina’s Under-20s to the L’Alcudia tournament in Valencia. While historically a fine shop window for budding stars to show themselves off, there is no doubt at all that the ‘invitation’ extended to the coach to accompany the young bucks is intended as a humiliating demotion in the hope of pushing him further towards the exit. Sampaoli unsurprisingly has declined the offer, which might give the AFA the excuse they need to show him the door. It is Machiavelli for Dummies, but it could just work, even if, as on Thursday, Tapia for now insists that he remains in charge.
Sampaoli could now be removed on the flimsiest of technicalities, hanged on a comma. His contract states that he must represent the national team on any stage the AFA deems necessary; if Tapia orders him to go to L’Alcudia and he refuses, that would constitute the breach necessary to make a clean break. Whether the fourth new coach in as many years would be a positive step for a dishevelled Argentina side now seems almost a moot point amid such wrangling, but it must nevertheless be stated.
The coach’s exit would leave the Selección back at square one, without a coherent project or even a coach ready to begin the journey toward next year’s Copa América and beyond. And while the likes of José Pekerman and Ricardo Gareca, the Colombia and Peru bosses now presented as the great white hopes for glory as director of football and coach respectively, are popular options to take over, there is no guarantee they will fare any better. And of course, whatever happens this latest shabby move by the AFA to dodge responsibility for its decisions only serves to take further legitimacy away from an organisation that already had precious little to spare.