After what seems like an eternity, Argentina have finally announced Jorge Sampaoli as the new manager of their national football team. Sampaoli will replace the much-maligned Edgardo Bauza, whose reign gleaned just three wins from eight to leave La Albiceleste in fifth position in the COMNEBOL World Cup qualification table. The delay in announcing the inevitable was due to discussions between the Argentine Football Association and Sampaoli’s club, Sevilla, who ended their season with a 5-0 destruction of Osasuna to finish fourth in La Liga. Sampaoli insists his decision is based on patriotism, not financial gain: “I’m not leaving here for money or as a mercenary; I’m going to the national team of my country.” To the contrary, reports suggest that Sampaoli even offered to pay his contractual release clause to speed up the process, such was his desire to take this role.
Sampaoli is a Bielsista, one of many disciples of Marcelo Bielsa. Like his guru, Sampaoli’s sides play an attractive, aggressive style of football, something which should fit nicely with the Argentine national team. Sampaoli’s playing career was cut short at youth level due to injury and his managerial club career initially took him to Peru, Ecuador, and Chile. His successful spell in charge of Universidad de Chile garnered his first titles, as he won three league championships as well as lifting the Copa Sudamericana. That success earned him his first international post, with neighbouring Chile. With Sampaoli at the helm, Chile won the 2015 Copa America for the first time in their history, ironically against Argentina.
Argentina haven’t won an international trophy since the Copa America of 1993 and of all the traditional footballing powerhouses are perhaps the biggest underachievers. Since Argentina’s triumph over Mexico 24 years ago they’ve seen Chile, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay wear the Copa America crown. Fierce rivals Brazil have also won the World Cup twice during that time, to further rub salt into the wounds. Barring Belgium and Switzerland, every other team in FIFA’s current top ten rankings have won an international tournament during that time.
Argentina have come under fire during the last few years for “bottling” three finals in three years. In 2014 Argentina lost the World Cup final to Germany; in 2015 and 2016 Chile defeated them on penalties in the Copa America and Copa America Centenario finals. In their defence, only one team can win any given tournament and plenty of international teams – England for one – would kill for the kind of “failure” that Argentina have experienced during recent years.
Poor old Gonzalo Higuain is the player to have received the most criticism during that time, missing a string of gilt-edged chances and a penalty in the 2015 shootout. Many commentators also say that for Lionel Messi to be considered the best player ever, he has to emulate the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona and lift a trophy in his international colours. To make matters worse, Messi’s Portuguese rival Cristiano Ronaldo ticked that box in the summer when his country won the European Championships. Like with England, Argentina’s lack of silverware appears all the more stark due to a so-called “Golden Generation”. For many of those players, the 2018 World Cup in Russia may be their last chance as a unit.
Sampaoli’s first games will be the far-flung friendlies against Singapore and Brazil (in Sydney, Australia) in early June. The squad for these games has been announced with the refreshing inclusion of several players from the domestic league as well as several popular call-ups from abroad. He may divide opinion off the pitch but Inter’s Mauro Icardi’s on pitch performance has warranted his inclusion for some time, although he hasn’t added to his one cap picked up in 2013. During the 2016-17 season, Icardi notched 26 goals in 41 appearances in Serie A. Leandro Paredes has excelled for Roma this year in a defensive midfield role. Promising goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli of Real Sociedad is in the squad and will hopefully take to the field on the trip to Asia and Oceania.
Qualification for the World Cup in Russia next year is still far from certain. Argentina are fifth in the table but due to the competitive nature of the COMNEBOL section are only two points off Colombia in second place. Looking over their shoulder, however, Paraguay are only four points behind in eighth place. A fifth-placed finish would be enough to earn a play-off with the winners of the Oceania section, likely to be New Zealand, in November. You’d expect Argentina to progress at their expense. If they do 2018 could be the last chance for several of the “Golden Generation” to perform at their peak and land Argentina that elusive trophy. On current form it looks unlikely but if Sampaoli’s appointment unleashes a wave of positivity, as well as restoring pride and an identity, who knows!