Argentina finally ended their trophy drought of 28-odd years by lifting this year’s Copa America. Even after managing to reach five major finals in these 28 years – four times in Copa America and one in the World Cup – Argentina still could never get through the final hurdle in any of the major tournaments. But the curse was finally broken in this year’s edition of the oldest football tournament in the world.
Even though everyone is tremendously elated to see Lionel Messi finally lifting an international trophy, we should not avert our attention from what Lionel Scaloni’s contribution has been to the Albicelestes as the head coach. He took over Argentina’s national team after the debacle of 2018 World Cup. He, like every other coach in the world, took his time to get into the groove, but finally managed to uplift the team above its innate capability.
On paper, the current squad of Argentina is a less-gifted one compared to the superior talents they had in the earlier years, especially in the 2010 and 2014 world cups. That generation of players had been one of the most proficient in Argentina’s history, showing early signs of what they were capable of by winning back-to-back under-20 world cups in 2005 and 2007, along with back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008.
But in the later years, the same group of players, somehow, failed to pull off what was expected of them at the big stage. Another reason why everyone expected Argentina to win major trophies was the fact that they have the player who has been crowned as the finest player of his generation ever since he started playing – Lionel Messi. But he wasn’t the only one in that side who was supremely gifted, at least on paper.
In 2010 World Cup, Messi had players like Tevez, Heinze, Maxi Rodriguez, Mascherano, Veron, Higuain, Aguero to surround him. These are players who have evinced their unmatched genius with their clubs time and again, but somehow failed to do so with the national team. The Argentine legend Diego Maradona was in charge of the team that year, but as a manager he couldn’t recreate the magic he once gifted the world with as a player. In fact, Maradona’s managerial tenure was disastrous for Argentina. He relied heavily on his heir Messi and other stars, and couldn’t build a force which could play together as a team. He kept playing around with different formations and tactics, even at the World Cup stage, which eventually forced Messi to play out of his natural position. Even though Messi delivered an impactful performance in the group stages, but in the knockout phase, he was nowhere close to what was usually asked of him, especially in the quarterfinal against Germany. Maradona’s overdependence on Messi was exposed in that match and they were thrashed 4-0.
Four years later, even though they secured a place in the final, La Albiceleste couldn’t show signs of a champion team. It was once again their talisman who put the team on his back, dragging them to the finish line. On paper, Argentina probably had the most formidable front three in the tournament with Messi, Di Maria and Aguero/Higuain. But they could score only 6 goals in the entire tournament, with Messi alone scoring 4 and assisting one. In the final, their go-to man was restrained by the German side and there was no one else who could rise to the occasion.
The same sort of a script was re-enacted in the 2015 and 2016 editions of Copa America. Sampaoli’s 2018 campaign was another addition to Argentina’s fiascos with managers.
What makes Lionel Scaloni stand out is his clarity as a manager and the use of players. Even after being handed over a less-gifted group of players compared to the earlier managers, he has achieved what his predecessors couldn’t, even though nothing magical was expected out of him. That was only possible because he is well versed with the fortes and weaknesses of each of his players.
Throughout the entire tournament in this year’s Copa America, Scaloni went out with very specific strategies, which varied game to game; and he has chosen his team sheet according to that. He kept shuffling Paredes and Rodriguez, Gonzalez and Di Maria, Lautaro and Gomez, and Tagliafico and Acuna, to fit into the particular game plan he set out with, which eventually turned out to be efficacious.
The fact that he never played the same starting 11 in any of the matches (which could have easily gone wrong) is a great testament to his intent and precision as a coach. Even though this team has a long way to go before they can actually claim their chances of being the world champions, they can be proud of the fact that they at least played together as a unified team, which the earlier squads clearly could not.
The Copa America win definitely was special to all Argentines, but it probably was a bit more special to their magician. Lionel Messi, in spite of owning such a decorated career, always had one constant criticism against him and winning a trophy in the Argentine shirt finally put them to rest. Ever since the little genius came into limelight, he had been told of by many as the most gifted player they had seen in years.
From Johan Cruyff to Diego Maradona, everyone was heaping praises on him; and the Argentine prodigy didn’t disappoint. By his mid-twenties, he exhibited football of such high degree that some people even started asserting that he was not only the finest player to have played the game in recent times, but probably the greatest ever.
Obvious comparisons were instantly made with his compatriot Diego Maradona, owing to similar playing styles and the magical left foot. But slowly, Messi started being welcomed into the same bracket with not only Maradona, but with the likes of Pele, Johan Cruyff, De Stefano, Brazilian Ronaldo and the other greats. His career with Barcelona kept flourishing, but his magic somehow didn’t reach its peak when he played for his country.
But this year’s Copa America finally made him achieve what he always dreamt of, where he not only won the tournament, but also delivered a performance for the ages. With four goals, five assists, and four man of the match awards, Messi becomes the only player in the history of the game to procure the winner’s medal, best player, top scorer and the highest assist provider in any major international tournament.
While there are many sport analysts who believe that this should seal Messi’s spot as the greatest of all time; a few others opine that without a world cup, that is not going to be the case. Some argue that the game has changed over the years and now Champions League is actually the tournament where all the best players in the world play, which wasn’t the case back in the day. Some people feel that Pele and what he did with Brazil in the world cups will always remain unrivalled, whereas a few others posit that it wasn’t Pele’s individual brilliance that took Brazil to glory. Pele had other great players around him and it wouldn’t have been possible without them. Garrincha’s 1962 performance was a prime example of that, where Pele was injured right in the first match; but Brazil still went on to lift the trophy.
Some people reckon that Maradona’s wizardry in Mexico in 1986 can never be replicated as he single-handedly won the world cup for his country, which never happened in the history of the game, before or after. On top of that, what he achieved with Napoli was another fairytale. But some people also believe that even though Messi couldn’t lift the world cup with his national team, but his longevity in the game puts him above all. As Gary Linekar says, “Maradona is the greatest. But Messi is Maradona every single week.”
The Brazilian Ronaldo’s name also pops up whenever people talk about the greatest players in history. On one hand, there is no denying that he was the most gifted player of his generation, but according to a few, his premature career end and the lack of longevity at his peak puts him behind in that race, and puts Messi right at the top.
Even Cristiano Ronaldo, whom the media has often touted as Messi’s rival, has shown unparalleled longevity in the game. Even though they are inherently different players in terms of their natural styles and their roles in the team, and experts often emphasize that Messi is a more complete player than his arch rival, but no one can refute Cristiano’s goal-scoring and game changing abilities.
The fact of the matter is that there will always be millions of opinions about who is the greatest; and millions of others defying that. Personally, I find it a bit unfair to compare players of different generations because most of times there are other factors than merely statistics which can justify a player’s greatness. But frankly, does it even matter? Whether the greatest ever or not, no one can take away from the fact that Maradona, with his 1986 masterclass, single-handedly inspired an entire generation to take up the game.
No one can bog down Pele’s role as an ideal ambassador to the biggest sport in the world for so many years, who is loved and revered equally all across the globe. Even though Cruyff doesn’t have a world cup medal to his name, no one can deny that he was the most crucial figure of the Dutch team which outclassed everyone during the 1970s with their playing style, commonly known as “total football”.
The same goes for Brazilian Ronaldo, De Stefano, Garrincha, Eusebio, George Best, Puskas, Lev yashin, Beckenbauer, Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano and many more, whose contribution to the game can never be doubted. Similarly, in Messi’s case, one can have thousands of arguments trying to justify why Messi is not the greatest ever; but his Copa America win made sure that his “underperformance” with his national team won’t be one of them any longer.