Jorge Sampaoli is the coach of Argentina, a country that still holds a place in the global collective consciousness for the notable soccer club that it is. Before this year, the role he occupied on the sport’s international stage was on the slightly less exclusive side. In 2009, when he was coach of Chile, he took his team to the last 16 of the World Cup, while also guiding them to the Copa America final, when they were defeated by eventual winners Uruguay. Two years later, he guided them to the final of the Copa, only to lose to Brazil.
Now he has taken his whole side to the World Cup in Russia with a wonderfully accomplished squad. Goalkeeper Willy Caballero is a solid shot-stopper and Sergio Aguero is the star striker, while Diego Perotti is a charming winger who has proved he can also score a few goals. Caballero was brought into the squad as a back-up keeper, but he could well keep the club legend Sergio Romero out of the starting line-up. He has four and a half years on his contract with Tottenham, so he has time to consider his future.
However, should he want to leave Tottenham and take the manager’s job at Barcelona, where he comes from, and also take with him a transfer bonus of £8m, he would surely be hard to beat.
The flamboyant art director Terry Gilliam once said that he was “like a footballer; I’m capable of doing a lot of things that other people are not and deserve to be paid well for.” Then he combined the coach’s position with that of footballer by playing one down at football, asking him to stop his squad from losing their temper during matches. His rejoinder to the question was: “Until their egos go up to an acceptable level.”
That can be a simple ask, but at least the player needs to work for it. His idea of the answer is, therefore, our notion of the kind of role Jorge Sampaoli does as national team coach: as the exalted and with the sole responsibility of improving a team that has been a disappointment in recent tournaments.
Of course, his qualities as a player are not that high. They were about the normal sort of stuff that happened in the late 80s and early 90s; a fair bit of midfield and a somewhat generous amount of goals. But he did manage to lead his country to the World Cup finals and he is a careful manager. With Nicolas Higuain in the squad, he has a target man who can reach the target of two goals a game and who will be pegging as high as an average of a goal a game.
Argentina have had some spectacular occasions on the field before the World Cup and there are places in their team that could be spectacular, too. The astonishing statistic that 40 percent of all goals in world football come from corners and free kicks stands as a reminder that Sampaoli has work to do at the physical end of the pitch. There have been a few tardy free kicks on the past three World Cups, and yet the team has often been attractive on the field and back when they have kept them for corners.
At the end of last week, I joined in the chants of “Costa Rica are awful” that often accompany Argentina matches in the South American qualifiers. The words are more expletive-ridden than the phrase, but what they are meant to convey is that the final is the A-List match of the World Cup in terms of excitement.
In this, they can be true; Spain, the current champions, and 2010 champions Spain are not in Russia, while Italy and Uruguay are sitting out the group stages. But Spain have a “bust-up” of a coach and injuries have limited their squad. And with one of Sampaoli’s main players, Edinson Cavani, out for the entire World Cup with a foot injury, Uruguay are also not making the greatest splash in Russia.
On that basis, I would suggest that the match on Tuesday pits all five of Argentina’s faces against each other, from Diego Godin and Sergio Romero up to Lionel Messi and Ronaldo.