Monday 17 December 2018

Analysis: After week of infighting it’s win or bust for Argentina, after ‘destiny’ gave them another chance

Lionel Messi arrives for training in Bronnitsy, Russia. AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
Lionel Messi arrives for training in Bronnitsy, Russia. AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

Ed Malyon

Bronnitsy is a small town around 60km south of Moscow that time passed by, boasting around 5,000 residents until the population exploded - ahem - to around 10,000 with the construction of the Old Ryzanskaya railway in the 1950s.

The rest of Russia had experienced its railroad boom nearly a century earlier, but Bronnitsy was a small settlement that during the 1600s had essentially been just a large set of stables that housed 200 horses owned by Michael I - the first tsar of the Romanov dynasty - and animals are thought to have outnumbered humans there until the 20th century.

In short, there's not a whole load going on in Bronnitsy. Or at least there wasn't, and then one of the greatest footballers to play the game, his national team, and their fanatical press corps rolled into town.

For Bronnitsy has become the unlikely home to Argentina for the duration of the World Cup and they have welcomed them with barely-believable enthusiasm.

The town has taken with such gusto to their visitors that to celebrate Lionel Messi's 31st birthday on Sunday, locals baked a chocolate cake in the shape of the Barcelona forward that weighed 150kg - around twice as much as the player himself.

"It took us six days to bake," said Daria, one of five bakers involved.

As townspeople and the invited travelling press corps began to cut into the impeccably-iced chocolate cake, the Argentina training camp down the road continued to simmer with anger. If the baked version of Messi had knives going into him, the real Messi didn't feel too different.

It has been a turbulent few days around the camp since that humbling at the hands of Croatia. Since Thursday night, bitterness and absurdity have been the dominant notes. The outrage back home has been real, but so much anger and irrationality has led to some very modern issues.

Even before the players had arrived back at Bronnitsy from Nizhny Novgorod for a 4.0am dinner that was eaten in almost total silence, WhatsApp audio notes sent by Diego Simeone to a close friend and colleague had managed to go viral.

In those notes, Simeone was immensely critical of Messi and the team. Perhaps justified given the paucity of quality in their display against the Croats but embarrassing for all concerned and this medium soon became the viral weapon of choice, with notes from a journalist, Mariano Almada, also leaking online.

In these audio recordings, Almada was also heavily critical and said he had heard that Javier Mascherano and Cristian Pavón had 'gone to the pineapples' a wonderful Argentinean idiom for having a punch-up, after the Croatia defeat.

As the unsubstantiated claims spread like wildfire, without his consent, things became blurred.

Mascherano publicly mocked the claims and Saturday became a toxic day between the camp and media where claim and counter-claim raged about everything from whether Jorge Sampaoli would still have a job to who might have been sent home.

The Argentinean FA (AFA) eventually called a press conference with their president, Chiqui Tapia, Mascherano and Lucas Biglia. Rather than efforts to calm the fire, the players fanned the flames, Mascherano even suggesting their phones might well have been tapped. Unlike his manager, whose confused syntax remains impossible to unpick, he spoke plainly and authoritatively for the best part of 45 minutes, flanked as so often on the pitch by Biglia. He referred to the rumoured discord of the last few days as counterproductive "noise". There had been a meeting where everyone gave their two cents.

One of the themes he rapped most on was the "myth" of managerial autonomy: "Even the best manager in the world consults his players because the players are the ones who end up taking decisions on the pitch."

It's the same with Argentina, Barcelona, or wherever, he argued: "It's not as if the manager has to work out a compromise but he usually wants to know how you feel on the pitch in such and such a situation."

When asked about playing with a back three or a back four, Biglia spoke once more of self-criticism and teamwork; Mascherano gave a prolonged "welllmmmmhhmmm", and began with a wry smile: "In a team meeting what you talk about most is football."

While they weren't trying to tell the manager what to do, the "slump" in the last half-hour of the Croatia match was what had "hurt" most of all, and it wasn't only down to morale, he said pointedly.

It's clear from Mascherano's comments how much the Nigeria result against Iceland has since refocused the group: "Of the three possible results, it was the best one for us, so you think 'OK, destiny is giving us another chance'. But whatever about spirit, we have to change how we work as a team."

He didn't regret speaking out as the last thing this team needed, he claimed was regretting not having voiced their misgivings: "The last thing this team needs is doubt; we need certainties."

Whether he had a chance or not, Sampaoli clearly hasn't managed to convince the players of his project. Further underlining the difference between the leader on the pitch and the one in the dugout, Mascherano's plan for the Nigeria match involved a curious zen-like metaphor.

In these situations, he said: "You have to have the memory of a fish. A fish has no memory; so you just get on with it."

Even with 500-plus caps between Mascherano, Messi, Angel Di María, Gonzalo Higuaín and Aguero, the solution for this decorated old guard would appear to be mindlessness.

Barely-organised chaos, a simple system and relying on quality players to make the difference appears to be the plan that has come out of the other end of a tumultuous four days in Argentinian football.

It is win or bust, with the latter unthinkable. (© Independent News Service)

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