We should have known that it would be Argentina.
We didn’t, though. After Spain fired their manager Julen Lopetegui just one day before the World Cup began, it was easy to believe that Spain would be the team to mutiny, revolt or generally descend into chaos in this tournament.
Spain hasn’t mutinied, and with a game left, they’re in a good position to qualify for the next round. Argentina though, has been volatile since before the World Cup, and the tournament has made the divisions within the squad even worse. The players are now reportedly ignoring manager Jorge Sampaoli and making decisions for themselves. It’s a situation that looks similar to France’s 2010 World Cup.
France’s mutiny happened after Nicolas Anelka was sent home following the team’s 2-0 loss to Mexico in the group stages. They had drawn 0-0 against Uruguay in the first match. Anelka and the manager, Raymond Domenech, got into a heated argument during halftime that saw Anelka insult and curse at Domenech. The manager followed by substituting the striker in the second half, and then the French federation expelled the striker from the squad afterwards. The next day, the team refused to train.
Team captain Patrice Evra and fitness coach Robert Duverne were seen arguing before training was to take place, and had to be pulled apart by Domenech. Evra and his teammates went to the team bus and when they came back out, they had a letter stating that they were unhappy with Anelka being sent home.
France lost their last game, 2-1, and went home without recording a single win. Anelka, Evra, Franck Ribery and vice captain Jérémy Toulalan, were suspended from the national team. The entire World Cup squad was suspended for France’s game after Norway following the tournament. The president of the French federation, Jean-Pierre Escalettes, resigned in disgust at the behavior of the players and Domenech was replaced by Laurent Blanc.
Argentina right now are in the same position France was in when their revolt started. A tie in the first game followed by an embarrassing loss against Croatia puts them in the peculiar position of having to win their last game to have a chance at qualifying for the next round. It’s not an impossible task, but given the condition of the team, both in quality and their mood, it wouldn’t be unexpected to see them lose meekly against Nigeria in the last match.
France’s problems in 2010 started before the tournament, and Argentina is similar in that regard. France barely qualified for the World Cup that year. They got in after beating Ireland in a playoffs thanks to an unseen Thierry Henry handball. The team was under pressure to do well after their first round exit in Euro 2008, yet players like Patrick Vieira, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema were left off the final squad. Under a manager who hadn’t impressed, and with a group of players who didn’t respect or trust his tactics, nor did they have any faith in the French federation as a whole, France’s journey to South Africa was destined for the worst type of failure.
Argentina has only been Argentina in name over the last two years, as they’ve been building up to disaster. After losing in three straight finals, Messi retired from the team in 2016. He eventually unretired because he loves Argentina and because the team — the squad of players and the Argentina Football Association — is incompetent without him.
In November of 2016, Messi had to pay the wages of the team’s security staff out of his own pockets because Argentina’s Football Association could not do so. Before he had retired, Messi called the federation “a disaster.”
After Messi’s retirement, Gerardo Martino and his staff, who said they hadn’t been paid either, resigned. Olympic coach Julio Olarticoechea made the same claim.
FIFA had to step in and take control of the FA that june of 2016 after the president, Luis Segura, was charged with fraud.
Argentina struggled through their World Cup qualifying. Jorge Sampaoli was brought in to fix the team, but it has been much of the same.
It took a Messi hattrick in the last game against Ecuador for them to make it. Messi missed one game, a 2-0 loss against Bolivia, after he was banned for verbally abusing an assistant referee, but in the 8 total games that Argentina played without him, they only managed one win. Messi scored 7 goals in qualifiers, almost a third of Argentina’s total of 19. No other player scored more than two.
Messi’s first goal against Ecuador was the first time in over 446 minutes that any Argentine player had scored, and Aguero’s recent goal against Iceland, was the first time in over 600 days that any Argentina goal wasn’t either scored or assisted by Messi. It was also Aguero’s first ever goal in the World Cup.
Argentina, for all of its talent, is entirely dependent on Messi and is incapable of producing anything positive if it doesn’t come from him. Inexplicably, players like Paulo Dybala, Ever Banega and Giovani Lo Celso sit on the bench. Lucas Biglia and Maximiliano Meza started instead against Iceland instead. They drew that game 1-1. Messi himself, who has been a picture of discontent and unhappiness, missed a penalty to win the game.
Croatia embarrassed them 3-0 after. Sampaoli went with a bizarre 3-man backline of Gabriel Mercado, Nicolás Otamendi, and Nicolás Tagliafico, in front of an obviously out-of-form and anxious Willy Caballero. He also started Meza, Marcos Acuña, Javier Mascherano and Enzo Pérez alongside Messi and Aguero. The disconnect between Aguero, Messi, and the others was apparent from the first minute.
The recent reports that the players have banded together to mutiny against Sampaoli isn’t surprising. This has been a team on the edge of catastrophe for a long time now. Sampaoli’s tactics and recent results have only made the situation more fragile.
As it was with France, the problem with Argentina isn’t just with the manager. This team is a mess overall. What is happening now is only a culmination of years of discord. Argentina is particularly dependent on one individual, the manager’s tactics haven’t helped to make them better, and the federation hasn’t built a good enough structure for either the manager or the players to succeed.
Argentina still has hope to qualify in their last game, but even if they were to succeed in that, there would still be a need for a complete reimagining and restructuring of the team and those who run it, once the tournament is over. This World Cup has only exposed how damaged the team is, and is only prolonging the desperate changes that need to be made.