Argentine substitute Lionel Scaloni has once again made the country sing | world cup 2022
Aall aboard the step. Standing room only on the blue and white bus with Lionel Scaloni at the wheel, next stop on World Cup ending: a whole country packed, all right behind him, packed together, singing. It wasn’t always like this but as Muchachos says, the song that has become the soundtrack of the last month: Argentina, land of Maradona and Messi who cried for so many years, has hope back. They’ve come a long way fast, and so has he, taking them back to Lusail on Sunday night.
Scaloni was in a hotel gym in Spain when the AFA convened four years ago, his first absolute squad was formed that afternoon while he was walking along the beach with Pablo Aimar. There to train the under 20s in L’Alcúdia, his may not have been the first number they dialed but he answered. “Nobody wanted to take the selection,” he admits Nicolás Tagliafico, among seven survivors of 2018.
He was initially named interim manager for two games. Two more followed, then two more: “There was no time to find a replacement,” he says. He barely had seven caps, he had just turned 40 and had no experience. Diego Maradona complained: “He’s a great guy but he can’t even direct traffic. How can you give the selection to Scaloni? We are all crazy? eat an roastOkay, but coaching a national team? It looks big on you, like Minguito Tinguitella with the Gordo Porcel suit”. Porcel and Tinguitella are a comedy duo, an Argentinian Laurel and Hardy if you will, and Porcel is the fat one.
How things change. Maradona was not the only one who doubted and that spell of taking it two by two was not exactly a resounding endorsement, but a connection was being built, an identification: a “chemistry” in the words of Scaloni. The national team was becoming the step – his National selection. A metaphor: it could be a ship that he captained, as well as a bus: this was a journey with more and more passengers coming on board. And although Scaloni does not like the title and prefers to point to his players, when they beat Ecuador in the quarterfinals of the Copa América 2021, he had taken a momentum that seemed irreversible.
This is now. Long after Scaloni sat in the stands with his wife, Elisa, and his two sons, Ian and Noah, the few fans left inside serenaded him. He insisted that he cannot be compared to Menotti, Bilardo or Sabella but what he can still achieve may be even greater. The sun will rise tomorrow, he likes to say, and boy does he have it. At 44, in the top management position, he has led Argentina from crisis to a Copa América, his first trophy in 28 years, to the last win against Italy as European champions, a 36 game unbeaten run and now a World Cup final.
Nobody expected this. Well, hardly anyone. If Scaloni is an unexpected hero, those who know him saw something. The youngest coach in the World Cup has not come from nowhere. He is there in personality and preparation. A simplicity, a frankness about him that friends associate with a farmer culture: an agricultural lifestyle. Which he also does, in fact. Talking to those who worked with him, the same words are repeated: passionate, determined, fun, competitive. Outgoing, he likes to talk. The empathy keeps coming too. She spends time with him and it’s surprisingly, well, normal.
“It is difficult for me to talk about him because we are great friends but when they chose him I was delighted. Many had doubts but he has the perfect mix. He is very Argentine but he played in Europe: he has the possession and the touch of Spain, the tactics of Italy ”, says Leo Franco, who met Scaloni at the age of 18, a teammate from Argentina Sub-20 and Mallorca, and was his partner in a coaching course.
“I have seen his sessions and he has incredible leadership skills but then he sits down to chat with the players. It’s amazing how natural he is. In Argentina we are very, very, very result-oriented and until he won the Copa América maybe his abilities were not so visible, but I was always convinced”.
Uruguay’s then-coach, Óscar “Maestro” Tabárez, pushed Scaloni aside in his first year and told him to ignore those who said he had no experience: Scaloni had “survived,” he said. Raised in Pujato, where his family worked the land, Scaloni says there was always an administrator inside, a collective conscience that his colleagues quickly saw. “I was focused on the group, I would play the full 90 minutes or two,” recalls Slavisa Jokanovic, a teammate in Scaloni’s first European season. Gregorio Manzano, his coach at Mallorca, says: “He was competitive, generous and empathetic. You could see in the attention he paid that he didn’t just like to play; It was the game.”
Scaloni earned his first coaching badges in Rome in 2011. A league and cup winner at Deportivo, he felt they should have won more and found in Italy the tactical depth he missed in A Coruña. He did regret not leaving sooner, but Spain had become his home, far from the noise of Argentina. He coached a Majorcan youth team before joining Jorge Sampaoli’s squad at Sevilla, then the national team, and earned his professional FIFA license with the Spanish federation, the new selection coach, Luis de la Fuente, among the teachers.
In Las Rozas Scaloni stood out. If anyone anticipated his success it was the class of 2018. “He was destined to be a coach. He loves soccer. The teachers put a topic on the table for debate and he had a great ability to argue his case, ”says Pablo Orbaiz, a former Spanish international who now works in the Osasuna youth academy.
“He has a gift, something special,” says Ayoze García, another classmate and former classmate. “He is a leader. As a player, he would be close to the coach, assimilate him. In the field he had ancestry. New ideas would occur to him. You’d think, ‘That’s crazy,’ and then, ‘Actually, it could work. Put it into practice, he did it ”.
Gica Craioveanu was also there. “There were two on the course that he would have bet on: him and [current Rayo Vallecano coach] Andoni Iraola,” he says, then laughs out loud. And he owes me dinner. He said he liked three centrals, I said [a back] four and I see that he used it in the World Cup”.
“I was sure that I would train”, agrees Iraola laughing. “He was so competitive, determined. After classes, some stayed to play soccer tennis. And if I had to cheat to beat you, I would cheat. And he always ended up winning. Watching Argentina, I see his character. There was theory, practical sessions, but the best were the debates, the arguments. And Scaloni was always right in the middle.”
There is a richness in this exchange of ideas, in the value of listening, of finding shared solutions, which is reflected in the choice of Scaloni’s back room: Aimar, Walter Samuel and Roberto Ayala. Those names say something about Scaloni’s humility and intelligence, his teammates insist. There is also a connection with the players and a depth of tactical analysis. That ability has perhaps been overlooked even though it has clearly developed, Argentina changing through players and formations, demonstrating fundamental flexibility. “We have a great coaching staff that leaves nothing to chance. What they tell you before each game passes ”, says Lionel Messi.
“Tactically he is incredible: he learned to structure his ideas, especially in Italy,” says Franco. “I could see it: there is a coach here. Some said: ‘he has no style’. They were laughing, dismissive. Many do not see that football evolves but he does. The two finalists are not coaches saying, ‘I have a system that I’m not going to change.’ You have to control all aspects. Do you need five in the back? Five. Do you need four? four Do you need the ball? Have it. If you have to kick it in the stands, kick it. Front five? Five strikers. He sees that.
“Scaloni has probably been the most interventionist coach in the World Cup,” says Iraola. “He has worked on various systems, allowing them to change during games. In terms of individual talent, there are probably five or six teams above them, but he has built a team.”
This has meant a structure that serves Messi and is served by Messi. Simple? As his teammates discuss the role of captain, it becomes clear that he is not. Meanwhile, a potential Argentina coaching candidate privately admits the Messi issue is one reason some didn’t want the job. In short, make it work – “and what Messi are we talking about?” a 2018 graduate note: it’s not that easy. As Orbaiz says: “Messi has had many coaches and they have not been able to do this. Scaloni has.
And he adds: “Scaloni had the courage to face Argentina and his group management, the union he has built, is brutal; what he has done, brutal. The demands are so, so big – very few people understand the pressure he has been exposed to, and he deserves enormous recognition.”
So now here comes the step, reaching the end. “Everything is the same again: when Leo has a goal, he meets it,” says Franco. “Seeing him reach the final makes me tremendously happy, for him and his family, because when you are a coach, not only you suffer. And as for the stepthere is something very important: it has returned to the Argentines the passion for the shirt”.