Can Messi-led Argentina go all the way at World Cup 2022?
Previous World Cup appearances: 17
Best finish: Winners (1978, 1986)
Key player: Lionel Messi
Fixtures: Saudi Arabia (November 22), Mexico (November 26), Poland (November 30)
Argentina’s nearly 30 of pain and run of tearful losses in important final matches came to an end last year when they won the Copa America and Lionel Scaloni’s team will head to the World Cup by taking confidence from that triumph in Brazil.
Having last lost at the 2019 Copa America, the Argentinian national team, La Albiceleste, fly into Qatar on the back of a 35-match unbeaten streak and as one of the firm favourite to break Europe’s 16-year stranglehold on the World Cup.
Much of the credit for winning a significant final after six failed attempts goes to Scaloni, the 44-year-old player who rose from the role of assistant to doomed manager Jorge Sampaoli, to caretaker, and eventually permanent boss.
The Argentine Football Association entrusted the rebuilding project to Scaloni who took over after their 2018 World Cup exit in the last 16 and with him at the helm Argentina followed up the 2021 Copa win by comfortably beating Euro winners Italy in June’s ‘Finalissima’.
Argentina had been a top heavy side for years with a luxury of options to choose from in attack but were let down by a defence and midfield that leaked goals. Scaloni’s first order of business was changing that.
Out went ageing players and in came young, hungry hopefuls as Scaloni implemented his vision for a successful team that would later be nicknamed “La Scaloneta” – the house Scaloni built.
Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, centre-back Cristian Romero and midfielder Rodrigo De Paul formed the spine of the new-look team as Scaloni found players capable of taking some of the burden off Lionel Messi’s shoulders.
Their possession-based game, with players such as Giovani Lo Celso, Leandro Paredes and De Paul dictating the tempo, freed Messi to be involved further up the pitch where he is most lethal.
Their talisman has been encouraged by Scaloni’s changes and tactical acumen, growing more determined to perform well for Argentina and even playing through injury in the Copa America semis and final.
“Scaloni is one of us,” Messi said. “It was he who selected the national team, the one who believed, the one who took charge at a difficult moment. He gave us confidence, he was bringing in new people, he always knew what he wanted and we grew. From the Copa America 2019, we took a leap.”
The 35-year-old was the best player at the 2014 World Cup when he came agonisingly close to replicating Diego Maradona’s success by leading Argentina to World Cup glory, only to be beaten in the final by a superior Germany team.
Messi is the sole surviving member from that starting lineup at the Maracana Stadium. But this time he has the support of a squad built by Scaloni to win not just matches, but titles.
Argentina is grouped with Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Poland.