After overseeing Argentina’s victory against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals, then-coach Alejandro Sabella waxed lyrical about Lionel Messi in a manner in which most others, when painstakingly seeking to find the right words to sum up the Atomic Flea, simply couldn’t top.
At the time, it was undeniably more a reflection of the individual. Messi guided Argentina to the semifinals of the World Cup for the first time since 1990, and, of course the final, one of a series of losses La Albiceleste have come to experience at that stage in the last decade. And now, possibly more than ever, the quote better serves as a call to action not only to Messi, but the collective to direct the world’s top-ranked team to its first major trophy since 1993.
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Back then, an Alfio Basile-managed side led by the defensive acumen of Oscar Ruggeri, brain and brawn of Fernando Redondo, heart of Diego Simeone and ‘Batigol’ himself, Gabriel Batistuta, scraped their way to a second straight Copa América title, two years after capturing their first since 1959. Since then, however, the search for what would now be a joint-record 15th crown has proved troublesome.
Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino will be tasked with delivering Argentina’s first major trophy in 23 years.
Between Copa América and the World Cup, 14 major tournaments have passed since Argentina last tasted triumph in a final, and seven coaches who’ve tried and failed to help steer La Albiceleste to the promised land. Following two consecutive runner-up finishes in the Copa América in 2004 and 2007, and once again in 2015 — a year after an extra-time defeat to Germany in the World Cup final — the indomitable mental block within the group truly surfaced.
With Sergio Romero, Nicolás Otamendi, Marcos Rojo, Lucas Biglia, Javier Mascherano, Javier Pastore, Messi, Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María, Tata Martino has nine of his 11 starters from last summer’s Copa América final returning for next month’s centennial edition.
By and large, none are strangers to success at the club level. Therein lies the million-dollar question: Will the persistent failures continue to impede them at the international level or will they give rise to an insurgence at next month’s Copa América Centenario?
Having already traveled to Santiago and exacted minor revenge on Chile in World Cup qualifying at the Estadio Nacional, the site of their most recent significant shortcoming, Argentina should open group play against La Roja with an air of confidence. Outside of La Paz, Bolivia have never posed a real threat. And only once have La Albiceleste encountered Panama.
After 23 years of chasing silverware and coming up empty (barring back-to-back Olympic triumphs in 2004 and 2008), something has to give. Collectively, Argentina need that water in the desert to come from somewhere. A wealth of talent has come and gone since the days of Batigol and El Cholo, and with arguably one of the deepest squads in the Copa América Centenario – and a two-year lull until the next major tournament — falling short at the final hurdle would be yet another slight on one of the competition’s most successful sides.