In 1986 Diego Maradona supremely guided Argentina to their most famous World Cup title. Boosted by this success, Argentina were a fixture at the end of every tournament over the next decade. Since then, however, Argentina have lost countless finals and it has been 22 years and counting since Argentina last won a tournament.
It is a shockingly long time for a nation boasting Argentina’s all-enveloping football culture and the unremitting talent of their players. Their youth teams, to illustrate the contrast, won World Cups in 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2007, and the Olympics in both 2004 and 2008.
The 1990s: Men fight!
Year Zero of this barren run would seemingly be the traumatic 5-0 loss at home to a freakish Colombia team in 1993 (a month before they narrowly beat Australia in a playoff) but also Diego Maradona’s last run with the team and last moment of onfield relevancy, disqualified after playing two matches at the 1994 World Cup for failing a drug test.
But the team sauntered on after that tournament without too many hiccups in the next years. The 1998 team played with the growl, manliness and bad blood that had become a (maybe unwanted, maybe not) cliché of Argentinian football, encapsulated by Diego Simeone’s famous tangle with David Beckham and Ariel Ortega’s stupid headbutt at the moment of truth against Holland.
The forward Gabriel Batistuta was Argentina’s poster boy in those days, but in 1998 Juan Sebastian Veron in midfield fulfilled the type of central number 10 role that countries with pure passing cultures like Argentina and Colombia have always craved. Veron’s intelligent passing and through balls would highlight him as perhaps the midfielder of the 1998 tournament.
But there was something undefinably missing from that team, who were outplayed for long stretches against England and Holland before Dennis Bergkamp settled things with arguably the greatest ever World Cup goal.
The would-be saviour
The next year came the introduction of another, even more classic number 10, who in his person and his idea of game style Argentines generally cherish. His name was Juan Roman Riquelme.
Riquelme plays football as if defences, opposition players crowding him out, and time itself were mere trifles. If a marker tries to rob him of the ball he will simply sidestep him holding the ball. If it then happens from a different angle, he will simply do it again and again until the correct pass can be made.
He fit perfectly with an Argentine’s conception of the game: a mixture of hardness from behind and silk in front, a hard defensive play kickstarting a multiple-player passing move, slowly and deliberately sliding the ball to the attacking central mid whose through ball is blasted or touched home by a Batistuta-esque forward.
Riquelme was the ‘pure’ player the country craves. A blogger named Elliott Turner had once cared enough to take the time to learn enough Latin phrases to write an article likening Argentina to battles of the Roman army. He later remarked:
“For me, once Riquelme stopped playing for la selección it was like when the first Buendia went insane and drifted out of the focus of 100 Years of Solitude – I kept watching/reading, but with considerably less interest and enthusiasm.”
The 2000s: Purity and futility
The new decade saw some changes. Argentina became minutely softer. They stopped winning the penalty shootouts and they stopped using the “It’s a man’s game” types like Simeone in midfield. Their play became ‘pure’ again, without the histrionics of the previous 40 years.
But they kept losing to a Brazil who after 1994 had reinvented themselves as winners, while the opposite insidiously happened to Argentina.
There were the lost World Cups of 2002 and 2006, each time when Argentina had the best team on paper but succumbed to increasingly terrible luck and an inability to convert magnificent ball movement into goals.
The 2002 team carried the hopes of a country decimated by the 2001 financial crisis. The currency became worthless, people had to start bartering like in pre-money times, there were five Presidents of the Argentine Republic in two weeks, and the strong economy of the 1990s never reemerged. The team featured Walter Samuel, Javier Zanetti, Juan Veron, the long-haired, captivating vista of Juan Sorin, at times Pablo Aimar (yet another number 10), Ortega (the now-forgotten focal point of two Argentine World Cups), Batistuta and Hernan Crespo. Those names rolled off the tongue for years, as late as 2010 when playing for the successful Internazionale club team.
But they were simply crowded out in defence in two consecutive matches against England and Sweden. It was a nightmare tournament for players and spectators alike, but Argentina’s freakish elimination was downright tragic.
While Argentina’s conception of the game was great that decade, they were victimized by increasingly unbearable defeats. They were seconds away from winning the 2004 Copa America but conceded a goal to Brazilian forward Adriano and subsequently wilted in the shootout.
Argentina lit up the 2006 World Cup with two incredible goals. They passed the ball around 24 times before setting up Cambiasso’s finish against Serbia, and then in extra time Maxi Rodriguez let a 30-metre crossfield pass bounce off his chest and volleyed the winner from 30 metres against Mexico.
Then came the start of Argentina’s love-hate relationship with a then 19 year-old Lionel Messi. Riquelme was prematurely substituted off in a quarter-final against Germany. Argentina then ran out of substitutes as Messi was not deemed important enough to be thrown on. Argentina again lost a tame penalty shootout in a tournament they had previously set alight. They started a brawl afterwards, inadvertently taking Germany down with them when Frings was suspended for fighting.
In the decade of the 2000s, the single attacking central midfielder (the “Number 10”) had been going out of fashion at the expense of wingers and eventually, towards using multiple and versatile attacking players from all angles with all-round game instead of specialists.
But Argentina played one of their ‘purest’ tournaments yet in the 2007 Copa America, for the last time dictated by an attacking central midfielder. They waltzed through the month with Riquelme controlling things even more supremely, and Messi, for now at least, seamlessly integrated.
In the other half of the draw nemesis Brazil had not only sent a B-team to Venezuela but had struggled to the final. Argentina were heavily favoured. But this set the stage for perhaps Argentina’s most devastating loss yet. Brazil were a one-two punch team, who attacked quickly and directly and whose superior goalmouth intuition ripped Argentina apart 3-0. The Argentines worked the ball slowly from player to player and found their attacks broken on a wall.
That was it for Riquelme, whose haughty personality had alienated a number of important teammates. He ended his Argentina career as an enigma; the man who had missed the penalty for Villarreal against Arsenal in 2006, who had come back to Boca Juniors and led them to a messianic victory in the 2007 Libertadores, who had not been able to prevent the meltdown against Brazil.
2008-11: The spiral
The next years heralded a crisis. Argentina lost to Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Paraguay in World Cup qualification and, briefly out of their freaking minds, tried using Diego Maradona as coach. They barely qualified for the World Cup.
The result of picking Maradona was a tactical mess, which provoked unprecedented thrashings of the record 6-1 loss to Bolivia, South America’s weakest team, and the 4-0 reversal in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final against, once again, a Germany who had completely reinvented their football culture.
Argentina had now gone five World Cups without even reaching the semi-finals. Without the procession of their talented players sustaining the Champions League, on this record it could have been argued that Argentina were no longer a top-tier national team.
The most galling part of these years was that they were the same ones in which Messi became not only the undisputed world star in the club game with Barcelona, but to such an extent that people were suggesting him as the greatest ever player since Maradona himself. Yet he was oddly powerless to prevent the Argentina team from crumbling from 2008-11. In the Germany quarter-final, Tevez, Higuain and Messi were detailed to attack but never helped out to keep the team compact on defence, an absolute modern day no-no.
What did not help Messi was that Argentina could never seem to provide for themselves any clever managers post-Bielsa and Pekerman – although plenty of sharp Argentines were now guiding other South American countries to success. Nor was there ever a transcendent Argentine goalkeeper who could go beyond mere competence to produce a tournament-changing save when the moment arrived in the way that, say, Marcos had carried an ailing Brazil in 2002.
The 2010s: Messi or bust
The connection between the Argentine public and certain players is definitely an intimate one. Veron, Riquelme and now Carlos Tevez all ‘prematurely’ returned from Europe, from outsider eyes in failure, but from their perspective to return to the heart of their people. These selected heroes are often the ones intimately connected to the Boca Juniors team of working-class Buenos Aires.
Carlos Tevez has arguably never delivered for Argentina’s senior team, and has sometimes even been a disruptive influence. Yet as a local boy who grew up poor in Buenos Aires, Argentines will barely countenance the idea of the Argentina national team playing without him. This week he has oddly returned to Boca Juniors after two very successful years at Juventus, aged only 31.
This connection, needless to say, did not exist with Messi, who left with his family to live in Spain aged 12. They say that what redeemed Messi until he finally started clicking with Argentina around 2012 was at least he had not lost his Rosario accent.
There was a further failure at home in the 2011 Copa America before the team finally seemed to get it together in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup.
Despite finishing runner-up in Brazil last year and only losing to a spectacular goal seven minutes from the end of the tournament, I would argue that the World Cup was a huge chance wasted for Argentina. They were playing in placid southern Brazilian cities close to home (while, say, Italy were crucified in places like Manaus and Natal). Their attackers Sergio Aguero, Messi and Angel Di Maria were a who’s who of recent European seasons. They were given a marshmallow of a draw.
I had always said that Argentina’s conception of the game has in recent years been great, but they’ve never gotten the breaks. This time they did not have to play a single difficult team until the semi-final. It was an open invitation to turn on the style. But Argentina trudged through forgettable match after forgettable match.
Messi provided a childlike thrill that the biggest star was delivering on the biggest stage with four early goals, including an iconic last-minute winner over Iran. But he had gone through the two worst seasons of his career approaching the World Cup and he was too jaded to continue in the same vein. Argentina’s other two potential match-winners Aguero and Di Maria were both injured.
It led to Argentina not scoring for the last five hours of the 2014 World Cup. Victory would have been an aberration, despite an impressive showing in the final against, yet again, Germany. Higuain, Messi and Palacio all missed their chances for immortality when each had a one-on-one with German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. None of their shots found the target.
Still, to finish the tournament second in the world meant that, whatever the hiccups, in theory Argentina were ready to take the reins again after two decades of pain. They fluctuated wildly, however, between easily reaching two Copa America finals while badly struggling for inspiration in World Cup 2018 qualification.
In two consecutive Copa Americas in 2015 and 2016 Argentina were eerily, identically defeated not by Brazil or Uruguay but by a proud team that had appeared from Chile. Both tournaments ended in tense, goalless finals against Chile followed by losing yet two more penalty shootouts, for a record of five shootout losses in twelve years. In both finals Argentina were on the verge of a breakthrough but Chile could not quite be broken.
In 2015, Argentina and Messi in particular played one of the most perfect matches in their history to crush Paraguay 6-1 in the semi-final. But a few days later against the hosts Chile in the final Messi was subdued and Argentina could not flex muscle.
Then in 2016, the special edition Centenary Copa America held in the USA, Argentina breezed through each match by three and four-goal margins. With Brazil in crisis and nowhere to be seen, it appeared that Argentina would easily crown their century at or near South America’s top by symbolically winning its 100-year flagship tournament.
But the nation with no history of success banded together and gatecrashed the trophy. The identical finals against Chile had some connecting facts. Gonzalo Higuain had missed the key goal-scoring chance in all three lost finals including the World Cup, tangible moments to point to that were the physical incarnation of Argentina’s malaise. And Messi had been left to do it all on his own against a team who was one-for-all, summed up by this photo from the 2016 final: