”We are in no way obligated to win the World Cup. If we think that, we are completely wrong. This is only a game. Then, real life goes on.” Many scratched their heads, failing to really understand what was going on in Lionel Scaloni’s mind after Argentina conceded a 1-2 loss against Saudi Arabia in the first match at Qatar 2022.
It was an unprecedented loss, breaking a 36-game unbeaten streak for Argentina, dating back to 2019, especially in a game that the South American side was huge favourite. How could Argentina clinch the trophy – the objective they set up for – when they could not even win against a huge underdog like Saudi Arabia?
The answer is surely in the strength of the group and the sense of collectiveness in Argentina’s side, but the man overseeing that group is often overlooked. When Argentina promoted Lionel Scaloni from the Under-20 side in 2018, after Jorge Sampaoli was fired due to the elimination in the Round of 16 at Russia 2018, everybody raised their eyebrows.
Sure, Scaloni was a former player, who featured for good sides, like Deportivo La Coruna, West Ham United, Lazio, Mallorca or Atalanta. But as a coach, he had little to no experience. Even as a player for the Argentina national team, he featured only seven times. So how could Scaloni even get here?
The current coach was also on Argentina’s staff, scouting opponents at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, four years earlier. And when he was named the coach, it caused a huge rift in Argentina. After the appointment, former star Diego Maradona told Scaloni was “not even capable of directing traffic.”
It was surely an unnecessary blow received by Scaloni, whose experience was limited, as he had previously only coached an amateur side in Mallorca, where his son played. But he was determined to rebuild an ageing and unmotivated Argentina side, trying to extract as much as he could from senior players.
First, he surrounded himself with several former Argentina stars, with his staff being comprised of Pablo Aimar, Walter Samuel and Roberto Ayala, all of whom had better careers than Scaloni and excelled in their positions. It was a signal that Scaloni was going to bring plenty of experience on the bench and create a unit as tightly knit as possible.
These moves started to signal that something might be happening in Argentina. Scaloni also had the chance to see Lionel Messi hungry for performance. When Scaloni retired from the national team, Messi was just starting to play. He missed trophies time and time again, but in his heart, Messi knew that Qatar 2022 was going to be the last World Cup he ever plays.
This is why Messi told Scaloni that the coach has the full backing of himself and the team. Scaloni knew he had something good on his hands, he just needed to deliver a good approach and strike an excellent balance between the grit needed by a winning team and the talent delivered by Messi.
“I fed on football. I could watch football 24 hours. I was always close to the coach, discussing what worked. That ‘bug’ always bit me. Even as a kid, the best in my age group, I was never an egotist, always pulled the group together,” said Scaloni after the loss against Saudi Arabia.
Of course, the critics bit him a bit at first, but he was reassured by one of the greatest South American coaches of the last decades, Uruguay’s Oscar Washington Tabarez, who told Scaloni that he had plenty of playing experience, that he is not a novice or a rookie in football.
It only boosted Scaloni’s belief that he could do something great for Argentina, especially as he was born in Pujato, a village of under 4.000 inhabitants, in the Santa Fe province, the one from which Messi also hails.
“It’s a typical Argentinian small town: people work the land, look after animals, a very monotonous life. Wake at 6am, go round the fields, check the cows are OK, there are no bugs on the crops, in the sunflower, the wheat, go home, eat, siesta, go back, do it again. Maybe that’s there in how you relate to people: simple, nothing odd, telling it how it is,” added Scaloni.
In only four years, Scaloni went from “not being able to direct the traffic” to a World Cup finalist, capturing the minds and hearts of every Argentina fan. Not only did he help Messi win the Copa America in 2021, his first major international tournament with Argentina. Now, “La Albiceleste” is called the “Scaloneta”, a play on the name of the coach and the suffix of a vehicle, which everybody wants to ride in.
“In Russia, he was the closest to the players. He talked a lot with us and created a bond between the team and the coach,” said Nicolas Tagliafico, Argentina’s left back, about Scaloni.
From a farmer, to an also-ran, Scaloni did something right and also created a 36-game unbeaten run for Argentina, the second-largest in the history of international football, only one game shy of Italy’s record. But that will not matter if Argentina win the FIFA World Cup for the third time.
If that happens, Scaloni will enter the history books and deliver a performance like no other. Quite good for a rookie coach.