Almost an entire year has passed since the Argentina national team was last able to take to a football pitch. The coronavirus pandemic accounted for the planned Copa América this winter and also caused huge disruption to scheduling for the World Cup qualifiers, the first round of which is programmed – although at this stage only wild optimists could assure they will go ahead – for mid-October.
Putting out an Albiceleste XI for these upcoming matches against Ecuador and Bolivia looks set to pose an acute logistical and selection dilemma. The already present dangers of organising any sporting activity, professional or otherwise in the midst of a pandemic is accompanied by the challenge of organising the homecoming of dozens of players from across Europe, without being able to comply with quarantine periods and right at a time when the continent is inexorably slipping into a second wave of infections as the temperatures begin to drop. With this in mind coach Lionel Scaloni has covered his bases. No less than 35 players based outside of Argentina received the call for the qualifying double-header in October, a number that will surely swell to close to or more than 50 once the domestic contingent is announced.
Despite the vastness of the squad, though, much of the reaction to Scaloni's list centred around a player who did not make the cut. Ángel Di María once more missed out, further suggesting that while he remains a star at Paris Saint-Germain his international career has come to a close.
The winger himself was more than bemused by the decision. “I cannot find an explanation for it, I have no words,” Di María told the Closs Continental radio programme. “For me, the national team is the biggest of all. I am busting my ass at my club it is to try and have a chance with the Selección and compete.
“It is hard to understand why I am not called up during such a good moment [of form]. If I am not, it is because they don't want to, but I will keep fighting to be in the national team. Am I too old at 32? If we are thinking about renewal you treat everyone the same. [Lionel] Messi, [Nicolás] Otamendi or others who are playing well would have to miss out too.”
Scaloni moved to allay Di María's doubts following that outburst, clarifying that the “doors are not closed to anybody” in the Albiceleste in spite of this snub. The call nevertheless did catch the eye, with the inclusion of Cristian Pavón – also in fine form in MLS with the Los Angeles Galaxy, but less than fondly remembered during his final days in Argentina with Boca Juniors – in the same position used as another stick with which to beat the coach.
Scaloni, a novice on the bench when he took over just over two years ago, has made mistakes in his time at the Argentina helm; but it is hard to fault his commitment to changing the guard with an eye to the future.
The stark truth is that, for all his obvious, world-class talent, Di María has for the most part flattered to deceive on the international level. Too often was the winger missing for Argentina when they most needed him in big games, as he either faded out of contention or succumbed to injury. The general perception of his Albiceleste career may be less flattering than the reality – a similar phenomenon to that which besets the much-maligned Gonzalo Higuaín in his home nation – but it is fair to say that it has been a long time indeed, certainly not during his wholly underwhelming Copa América campaign fourteen months ago, since Di María has shown anything like his best for his country.
Scaloni's commitment has been to a clean break, or as clean as possible, with the close-knit generation of the 2005 and 2007 Under-20 World Cup winners which took Argentina so close to glory only to fall short time and time again ushered out of the door wherever possible. Messi, of course, cannot be spared, and is essential to any plans the coach has going forward towards Qatar 2022, even as he enters the autumn of his career.
Sergio Agüero is tolerated rather than welcomed, with injury giving Scaloni a convenient excuse to leave him out of his plans for October. But for the likes of Di María, goalkeeper Sergio Romero, Higuaín and other stars there seems no way back: this is the age of Lautaro Martínez, Rodrigo De Paul, Leandro Paredes and a new generation of talent.
Whether Scaloni is right to dispense with such distinguished players to break up the old dressing room cliques is yet to be seen; but the trainer has set his stall out for a new-look team, no matter how much it may chafe with the Albiceleste stars of yesterday.