Diego Maradona wiped tears from his eyes. On the terraces, the Argentina fans stood stunned. The whole of the football world was left speechless at the meltdown that led to Argentina losing 3-0 to Croatia. With just one point from two matches, the finalists of the previous edition were on the verge of elimination.
One of the underlying themes of this World Cup has been the tenacity shown by the underdogs. Big teams, led by players who have acquired superstar status due to exploits in club football, have been made to work hard for every goal scored and every point earned. It drives home the point that football, at its core, remains a team sport where you need 11 functional players, not necessarily a galaxy of stars. And Argentina would testify to this. On paper, they have one of the strongest teams and in Lionel Messi, one of the best players this generation has seen. This World Cup, it was widely held, would once and for all settle the Greatest of All Time debate in Messi’s favour. But this gift is also proving to be their biggest curse. Argentina have struggled to get a tactician who can design a system that could extract the best from their star players, particularly Messi.
When Jorge Sampaoli, their third coach since the 2014 World Cup, was appointed last year, his logic was straightforward: Pass the ball to Messi and let him do the rest. By focussing on just one player, Argentina were dysfunctional in all other areas on the field and they have been repeated found out — by minnows as well as big-guns. Those who have followed Argentina since the 2014 World Cup would not be entirely surprised at their dismal performances. It may still not be over for Argentina at the World Cup. But there hasn’t been a lower point for the country with a proud footballing tradition.