Lionel Scaloni had been retired for a year and felt an inner emptiness that was hard to ignore. The former West Ham full-back has missed football so much that he was ready to call Son Caliu, the amateur club next to his home on the island of Mallorca, to say he was available to work with their children if they had a position for him.
And that’s what he did in 2016. It was then, after a training session, that he learned that Lionel Messi had decided to quit international football. He couldn’t believe it and decided to tweet a picture of his ex-teammate at the Copa America final that year with a desperate message.
“This picture says it all… Don’t go Lio,” he wrote.
Scaloni couldn’t have known it at the time, but six years later he is working towards his first World Cup as a manager, having so far been able to bring out the best version of Messi for the South- Americans and end a 28-year title drought with the 2021 Copa America Trophy in Brazil. It was the start of ‘La Scaloneta’, as the team has been nicknamed ever since. The 44-year-old coach is now the most popular man in the country.
So much so that even before the start of the campaign in Qatar with a surprise loss to Saudi Arabia last Tuesday, he already had his contract renewed until 2026. The last Argentine manager to remain in charge after a World Cup was Marcelo Bielsa in 2002.
This is a testament to its immense popularity.
Although the opening game in Doha did not go to plan at all and became one of the biggest World Cup upsets of all time, the whole team and the fans have blind faith in their coach.
“This baptism in Qatar is full of surprises for Messi and company,” said Argentinian newspaper La Nacion after the stunning Saudi victory, but that doesn’t dent their confidence in what Scaloni has built – not yet anyway. .
“If it’s 10 a.m. and Scaloni says good night to us, then it’s night for us too,” said Atletico Madrid midfielder Rodrigo de Paul.
Unlike in the past, Messi and Co now turn to the dugout and see one of their own. If they recover from Tuesday’s loss, negotiate their way to the knockout stage and then push to bring the trophy home for the first time since 1986, that will be even more crucial.
“We have a coaching staff with Scaloni and other former footballers such as [Pablo] Amer, [Roberto] Ayala and [Walter] Samuel, who has been through a lot in the Argentina shirt, knows what it means and is capable of passing it on,” former international midfielder Lucho Gonzalez told BBC Sport.
“And then we have a group that you can see very clearly work with joy when they get together. We also have the best player in the world, but the team makes him feel good and doesn’t just rely on him. That’s the key to this process.”
“He will go to the Motorcycle World Cup, not the football one”
Scaloni mania was in full swing in Argentina ahead of this World Cup, but no one could have predicted it when the man from the small village of Pujato was first appointed as interim manager after the calamitous campaign Russia 2018.
The reviews were such that even the legendary Diego Maradona said at the time that the only World Cup he would compete in was motorcycling, not football.
A reserved and down-to-earth person, Scaloni listened to all of this, but chose not to respond. Having worked as an assistant to Jorge Sampaoli at Sevilla and then following him to the national team in Russia, he couldn’t argue too much about his lack of experience. After all, two years ago he was still coaching kids at his neighborhood club.
“We went to the 2006 World Cup together, but despite his extraordinary journey, I couldn’t imagine he would become the manager he is today,” recalls Lucho, who is also beginning his life as a coach . “It’s natural that he was questioned a bit at the start. The media didn’t know much about his ability, but it turned out to be a very smart move on the part of the federation.
“I believe time has shown that if you don’t focus too much on early results, processes work. And they did work.”
No separate tables in ‘La Scaloneta’
The meaning in Argentina is that ‘La Scaloneta’ has a great solidarity, forged over many years. When Juventus midfielder Leandro Paredes celebrated his birthday in Ibiza last summer, 13 members of the squad made the trip to be with him.
Scaloni has only one rule when in camp: all players must sit at the same table and be able to look each other in the eye.
It’s no wonder that, arguably for the first time since 2006, the Argentines truly believe they can win the World Cup. Even the Saudi result did not change that.
“It usually doesn’t matter how you get to these tournaments, but obviously getting there as a title contender and with such a great atmosphere excites the fans,” Lucho said.
“It’s a special World Cup, our first without Maradona, a man loved by all Argentines, and especially by me, who would always be there in those moments, but I have no doubt that he supports us from above.”