Argentina-Uruguay is probably the mother of all soccer games. The encounter has the historical significance of England-Scotland, because in the nascent days of the World Cup, the La Plata derby was a game between the world’s leading teams, a far cry from today’s artificial and commercial derby between Argentina and Brazil. Argentina-Uruguay is always a meeting between old foes, and when the Albiceleste hosts Uruguay on September 1, the game will have an ever greater weight.
Uruguay sits joint-top of the South American table of World Cup qualifying with 13 points; Argentina is third with 11 points. It’s a smooth and rosy position for both countries, but the institutional crisis engulfing Argentine soccer could derail Los Hinchas’ road to Russia.
The seed of the crisis was the Copa América final at the cavernous MetLife Stadium. The game was to be Lionel Messi’s coronation as the greatest Argentine player in history, an uber-Maradona, rightfully in the pantheon of the soccer gods, leaving a profound legacy to the Albiceleste and generations to come. Instead, scooping his ball high into New Jersey, Messi faced a painful déjà-vu: another final lost – again, in the most painful of ways, on penalties.
Not that Messi had not tried. Again, he was the lynchpin of the Argentine team, but he failed to apply a finishing touch in a stalemate that was, at times, both brutal and cynical. Argentina seemed to suffer from a psychological predicament – the fear of defeat in that one life-defining game, that one game to end a 23-year drought.
Messi slumped to the ground as the Chileans celebrated. The Barcelona player simply didn’t seem compatible with Argentina. It was an existential conundrum – different coaches have tinkered with their line-up to accommodate Messi, get the best out of him, extract his divine qualities for the benefit of the team, but no plan had ever worked.
Messi missing a crucial penalty didn’t fit the narrative of a global soccer icon. He is de-humanized. He couldn’t and must not fail – but he did. He ballooned the ball high over the bar. In his bitter disappointment, Messi decided to retire, a decision sparking the end of an era.
Argentina-Uruguay is rapidly becoming a game of paramount importance; another measure, for better or for worse, of Argentine soccer.
The diminutive player caused a domino effect in Argentine football. At the playing level, Javier Mascherano and other top Argentine players are considering retirement after one defeat too many.
At the institutional level, the problems at the Argentine soccer association (AFA) have been exacerbated. For decades, the AFA had been the personal fiefdom of Julio Grondona, a FIFA big wig and scrupulous football official. Now, the AFA is wading in trouble, with a lack of command and money. In December, the presidential elections between Luis Segura and Marcelo Tinelli ended in a farcical 38-38 tie.
A few days before the Copa América final, Messi described the situation as “a disaster.” Argentina had suffered delayed flights and problems in finding sparring partners for warmup games in the lead up to the continental championship.
On Tuesday, Tata Martino resigned as head coach of the Albiceleste. He has not been paid a salary for several months, according to multiple media reports. His resignation is also intertwined with Argentina’s dour Olympic perspectives.
The 2004 and 2008 Olympic champions need new players to step up to prepare for the post-Messi era – Argentina’s nationwide mobilization and belated showing of love for Messi may not be enough to lure its boy wonder back to the national team.
As the Olympic Games are not part of the FIFA calendar, Argentina can’t call up its European players. The national team is also facing resistance from domestic clubs, who are reluctant to release their players. The Argentine Olympic team then may constitute a rudderless hodgepodge of players.
“Me-xit” has caused severe ripples, and so, Argentina-Uruguay is rapidly becoming a game of paramount importance – another measure, for better or for worse, of the state of Argentine soccer.