The dream is over for Argentina's young hopefuls. A just, albeit slightly inflated defeat at the hands of Nigeria sent Javier Mascherano's charge out of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, meaning the hosts will be forced to watch the rest of the tournament from the sidelines. Disappointing, of course – but perhaps it could have been worse.
There is no doubt that a special bond to this formative competition exists in Argentina that is hard to find elsewhere. A fundamental part of the Diego Maradona story, after all, takes place in Japan where, following his anguish at having missed out on César Menotti's 1978 World Cup winning squad, he unleashed that fury on his peers the following year to crown his nation double world champions.
Later would come the golden era of the 1990s and 2000s, where a seemingly unstoppable assembly line of sparkling talents carefully nurtured by José Pekerman and his staff made the competition their own. Juan Román Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Javier Saviola, Mascherano himself, Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María and Lionel Messi all stood out as Argentina won five World Cups in the space of 12 years, establishing the nation as the most successful on the planet at youth level.
Unfortunately, the class of 2023 fell just short. Two moments of defensive inattention, a perhaps overly negative game-plan for the first hour and moments of rotten luck in front of the Nigeria net sealed their fate as they went down 2-0, their first defeat at this World Cup but one which seals their fate. And predictably, in particular given their toils in getting to the finals in the first place, the critics have been swift in descending on the youngsters and their coach in particular.
That is ungenerous to say the least. Nigeria are historically a formidable contender at youth level and showed as much with another strong showing to reach the quarters at Argentina's expense. Mascherano may have been overly timid in his planning but that much was understandable given the danger posed by the opponent in its rapid counters, which were stemmed for much of the first hour until the dam finally burst. He may not be destined to be a world-class coach in the same manner as his playing days but his handling of this team of young prospects on a personal level at least was encouraging, and he can only learn from this rather chastening experience as his career on the bench unfolds.
Plenty of players in spite of defeat also showed that they have much to give in the years to come. To name just a handful: Federico Redondo flourished in the centre of midfield as he seeks to follow in the illustrious footsteps of father Fernando; Valentín Barco confirmed his potential as a full-back to watch for both Boca Juniors and Argentina; Alejo Véliz is a constant threat for any defence both on the ground and in the air. Overall, this World Cup will leave far more positives than negatives for the future of the national team once the hysteria starts to fade: the talent is there for years to come.
Above all, a sizeable dose of perspective is required. Victory at U-20 level, as exciting as it may be, is historically a poor indicator of future World Cup glory – as Argentina's golden 2000s generation know too well.
How many senior winners did those two victories in 2005 and 2007 combined yield? Exactly two, Messi and Di María. Meanwhile, five members of the disastrous 2017 U-20 World Cup campaign, where the Albiceleste were eliminated in the first round, went on to lift the biggest title of all in Qatar last December. As this column noted last week, the kids are alright: not world-beaters still, but equipped with all the tools to keep developing and one day challenge the Qatar heroes themselves for a place in Lionel Scaloni's intensely competitive senior squad.