“The Sun rose facing Castro in Cuba, the sun rises facing Diego Maradona in Argentina,” I told my friend who was watching Argentina play for only the second time. This quote by a Nicaraguan poet was an attempt to explain South America’s unhealthy romance held for populist leaders who appear to be ‘one of them’. The fascination started with Simon Bolivar’s one-man war against the tyranny of the Spanish colonial reign. He united tribes, natives and countries against the European encroachers. But social scientists will tell you that this phenomenon takes a drastic deflection into football nowhere else as much as in Argentina. Following the 0-3 defeat against Croatia, it is clear that while Diego Maradona had to carry the weight of the nation on his shoulders, Lionel Messi has to carry his team in addition to that. And that makes for most unenviable task in sport.
What we saw on Thursday from Argentina was an exhibition of Carlos Bilardo’s 3-5-2 version of anti-futbol without the football. It was a watered-down derivative, a pauper’s show of philosophy. Bilardo’s tactics guided Diego Maradona to his ultimate glory in the 1986 World Cup. The cast and crew of the 1986 World Cup-winning team were pulling the weights, opening trap doors, dropping sandbags, tripping opponents up in the backdrop as Maradona did his footballing-Carlos-Gardel routine.
What Lionel Messi instead has is a collective of clowns who are committed to setting themselves on fire. A ringmaster can do very little if he’s asked to run a sideshow. The tactics and the cynical competitive edge on show last night was a cheap knock-off copy of Bilardo’s conservative “win-at-all-costs” football. It was taken too literally by Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli, and it was embarrassing for everyone involved. Especially, Wilfredo Caballero.
The goalkeeper showed no signs of learning from his mistakes. His stubbornness to play the ball out from the back has already resulted in Iceland’s first goal in the World Cup, and laid the foundation of multiple siege down the left flank. Deja vu resumed in the 19th minute of the match against Croatia where the goalkeeper sold left-back Tagliafico short on a pass outside the box, which Mario Mandzukic latched on and fired into the side-netting.
Following the script, the first of Croatia goals arrived in the 52nd minute when the goalkeeper upon receiving a back-pass from Mercado decided, for some inconceivable reason, to lob the ball over the onrushing firebrand Rebic. The Croatian, who hasn’t scored in five years since his goal against Liechtenstein, plucked the ball with volley and saw it sail like a paper plane into the net.
Wilfredo was being booed by his own crowd. And if Argentina are to go out of the tournament, he might face the same public hatred that was reserved by Brazil fans for their goalkeeper Barbosa, the goalie who lost Brazil the 1950 World Cup, and the father of Maracanazo. On the side where the grass was greener, the canary yellow and cobalt blue-wearing Brazilians gathered by the hundreds in St. Petersburg were more drunk with joy than usual.
The build-up to the mistakes started before the game when Jorge Sampaoli failed to bench Wilfredo. The signs were there, but he, like Caesar and many other heads-of-states who fell on their own figurate sword, chose to ignore them.
Further upfield, Messi had only 11 passes in 52 minutes — and had an average positional movement of a tumbleweed. This is where Croatia’s European esteem comes in. A masterclass in marking-the-space-and-not-the-player paid off handsomely — Modric, Rebic, Rakitic, and Mandzukic were picking off all the through balls that were played to Messi through the middle. In contrast to Croatia’s gameplan and prudence, Argentina looked like a man with his head in a big bucket, eyes closed, nose filled with water, bobbing for apples.
Modric’s 30-yard goal that seemed to chirrup through the air like a darting bird of paradise in the darkness of a jungle. It was a flash of beauty in an otherwise unseemly encounter of sharp elbows, belated stamps, and almost-skirmishes. The game was peppered with fouls which meant to injure more than they were meant to impede. You could almost time your watch to the number of times a Croatian player appeared to crumble to red and white heap, like a mashed up red velvet cheesecake.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic’s brilliance on the ball and off it, and the long-term vision of their possession and positional play made Argentina’s impulsiveness on the ball look like middle-school petulance. This, and the fact that defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano (who had to come up to the edge of the box on the 61st minute to link play) and left-defender Tagliafico were the chief creators throughout the match, is an alarming fact that Sampaoli chooses not to address.
The final blow arrived like the Ides of March: a precise deep, long pass from the Croatian midfield breaking from a corner — the resultant shot from the play was parried by the goalkeeper onto the foot of an onrushing Rakitic who converted Croatia’s third.
This game was beautiful in spite of it, and it was all Croatia, and the history books will confirm the insult. This was Argentina’s biggest group stage defeat in 60 years, and the first time they have failed to win two successive group stage matched since 1974.
The problems run deeper than just incompetency on the pitch — it’s also the non-selection of Dybala, Fazio, Pavon, Guzman, and Banega from the start which begs to ask the question if Argentina need a second coming of Luis Menotti to take them out of the rut, and perhaps not a wannabe-Bilardo.