No one who was at the World Cup in Brazil eight years ago can forget the soundtrack to the tournament. It was provided by the massed hordes of visiting fans from Argentina who, wherever they gathered, belted out a song to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.”
The adapted lyrics had nothing to do with the Mexico 1986 tournament, when Diego Maradona hit heights of genius rarely seen before or since. They were not even about Argentina ’78, the site of their first World Cup win. Well, the lyrics to the song focused on a goal scored in Italia ’90.
Then, as now, Argentina suffered a surprise defeat in the opening game of the tournament. From the perspective of the time, losing to Cameroon was at least as much a surprise as Tuesday’s shocker against Saudi Arabia. But that team picked itself up, dusted itself down and went all the way to the final. Thirty-two years on, Argentina fans are hoping for a similar revival.
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It is fascinating that Italia ’90 holds such a place in footballing folklore. But then again, Argentina is the country of tango, with its tales of dark romance, dramatic twists and romantic tragedy.
Perhaps things were simply going too well when the team swaggered into Qatar on the back of a 36-game unbeaten run. There was a fear in the camp that something might go wrong when it mattered most. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni talked about it after his side thrashed European champions Italy in June. The Italians, of course, had been on a long unbeaten run — and even so had missed out on the World Cup. Something similar happened to Algeria. Better, one might imagine, for something to go wrong in the first match of the World Cup — when there is still time to put things right — than in the knockout stages, where defeat means elimination.
And the situation of Argentina is more comfortable than that of Germany, the other surprise first-round losers to Asian opposition. Argentina do not have to face Spain in the next game. Instead, it is Mexico followed by Poland, both of whom looked unimpressive in their drab goalless draw. The Mexican wingers do not seem to pose the same threat as they did four years ago. Argentina have knocked over Mexico three times in the Scaloni years, without conceding a goal, and Poland have the air of a side too slow to give support to centre-forward Robert Lewandowski — and too slow to put the Argentina midfield under the kind of pressure that Saudi Arabia managed on Tuesday.
After Tuesday’s match, Scaloni said that he had not been surprised by the Saudi approach, the high defensive line that squeezed the play and prevented his team from establishing their customary rhythm of patient passing. This raises an obvious question: if this had been expected, then why were Argentina so poor at dealing with it?
There has been an air of euphoria about the national team over the course of that long unbeaten run, and especially since the triumph of last year’s Copa America. The side have been baptized the “Scaloneta” — the Scaloni squad, in tribute to the remarkable story of a man with no previous senior coaching experience who took the team to their first senior title since 1993. But 45 bad minutes against the Saudis have been enough to bring the prolonged honeymoon to an abrupt end.
Argentina loves an analysis, and newspaper articles and TV debates have gone in depth into the flaws and failings of the shock defeat. The true test of a team is always when it goes behind — not a position that Argentina have had to face too often in recent times. Under pressure, a team with a strong idea became a team with no idea.
Scaloni’s side has been based on association, on combinations of passes that grow quicker closer to the opposing goal. True, the injury to Giovani Lo Celso has not helped matters. He was a vital part of the central midfield trio, and when he was forced out, Scaloni confessed that he does not possess an ideal replacement. Even so, Argentina should surely have done better in their efforts to get behind the Saudi defense. The best solution would have been a quick midfield combination followed by a forward pass from a runner from deep. Instead, Argentina never managed to work this out, and persisted with long balls up to the strikers that resulted in 10 offside decisions going against them.
Has Scaloni, then, trained his team for only favorable situations? Is there no other game plan? And why were his substitutions so ineffective? Has the rookie coach made a mistake by not taking an out-and-out center-forward as a backup? And did he spend too long hoping for players to recover before having to drop three from the squad?
In the agonizing days before the Mexico match, all these questions and more are being debated. There is one way to shut them up: a win on Saturday and a revival of the hope that, just as in Italia ’90, Argentina can make it all the way to the final by taking the scenic route, showing the kind of grit that will be sung about in years to come.