I want Argentina to win the World Cup. But I wanted them to win the last World Cup too and we all saw how that turned out.
By all objective criteria, the team has regressed significantly since 2014. What’s more, other perennial favourites have noticeably strengthened within that same period.
Yet, somehow, I still believe they will do it. Well, ‘believe’ is a strong word. Let’s just say I’m quietly confident—an ardent supporter’s delusion, I suppose. That spark of blindness that enables you to see patterns where there are none, spin negatives into positives and snatch hope from the jaws of despair.
It afflicts us all at some point and I guess it’s what keeps the gambling industry lucrative.
So here, in order of increasing desperation, are the four reasons I think Argentina will lift the 2018 World Cup:
Yes, of course, he gets a reason to himself. Lionel Messi enters this campaign in much better physical condition than in 2014. He is well-rested and at the peak of his powers. He may have lost a half-step of pace compared to his ball-hog days but he’s a more evolved, tactically flexible, complete player.
Messi was never captain material but this bearded, tattooed version is the best we can hope for in that regard. He can now be seen addressing the ref and sticking up for his teammates when the need arises. He’s still not the most vocal but such is the respect he commands in the camp, a simple glare is often all he needs to set someone straight. The boy has become a man.
2. The Coach
The days—if they ever existed—when a player could single-handedly win the World Cup are long behind us. So, no, Lionel Messi is definitely not enough.
However, if there’s anyone who can build a supporting cast around Messi and, more importantly, fashion an actual team identity—something Argentina have lacked for a long time—it’s Jorge Sampaoli.
Sampaoli is excellent both as a tactician and a motivator. Some argue that Argentina lack the personnel to implement his ideas; however, in those key positions—full-backs and on the wings—I believe that there are unknown quantities such as Eduardo Salvio, Nicólas Tagliafico and Cristian Pavón that are ready to surprise the world.
That said, even the best coaches make decisions that baffle us ordinary fans. #PleaseBenchHiguain.
3. The Veterans
Higuain aside, Argentina has a number of underperforming stars who, I believe for different reasons, will find redemption this summer. Sergio Aguero has always been an excellent striker but, owing to the influence of Pep Guardiola, his all-round game has improved. He works harder for the team now, which will make it easier for him adjust to Sampaoli’s demands.
Angel Di Maria on the other hand has blown hot and cold his entire career but his run of games with PSG—post-Neymar’s injury—would have done his confidence a world of good. He’s also injury-prone but the stiff competition he faces for his spot from Pavón means he can be utilised more wisely.
Other veterans like Mascherano, the doubters claim, are past it. Mascherano is playing for his country in a World Cup for probably the last time; I pity the innocents who doubt him.
4. The favourites never win
The World Cup is predictable in the sense that only a select few—Argentina included—are considered genuine contenders. But when it comes to which of these contenders will actually lift the trophy in any given edition, things rarely go according to script.
For this tournament, the top-tier favourites include Brazil and Spain (the ‘form’ teams playing the best brands) alongside Germany and France (who both boast unrivalled squad depth).
Argentina are consigned to a spot in the second tier, probably alongside upstarts Belgium and maybe England (who always flatter to deceive).
Psychologically, that second tier is a good place to be because the weight of expectation isn’t quite as burdensome. This golden generation has been weighed countless times and deemed unworthy. Ironically, this dismissal may finally free them to play to their true potential.
In that regard, I see a parallel with the Brazil team of 2002, which wasn’t considered heavy favourites either, that dubious honour going to France and Argentina.
Four years earlier in Paris, the Samba Boys had blown their golden opportunity; for Japan/Korea in 2002, they had barely scraped qualification, Big Phil being brought in at the eleventh hour to salvage the campaign. Additionally, many doubted that “Il Fenomeno”—the original Ronaldo!—could hack it again, following two career-threatening injuries.
Cafu and Rivaldo were both on the wrong side of 30 and Ronaldinho was still being dismissed as an overhyped talent with great potential but questionable attitude. Public sentiment too was against the team owing to the exclusion of Romario—whose goals were a big part of the reason they had qualified in the first place.
What a difference a summer makes!