Somehow, some way, Argentina are still alive at the 2018 World Cup.
They don’t have themselves to thank for this unlikely reality following a 1-1 draw with Iceland and 3-0 loss to Croatia. Rather, should they manage to sneak into the tournament’s Round of 16 as Group D’s second seed, they can look to the route opened up for them by Ahmed Musa, who scored both Nigeria goals in Friday’s 2-0 win over the Nordic upstarts.
Incredibly, La Albiceleste can still enter the knockout stages with a Tuesday defeat of the Super Eagles and a helping hand from Croatia. And then, who knows?
Now, this is all rather optimistic. Through 180 minutes in Russia, this Argentina side has shown only that they can find new ways to fail on the pitch.
Lionel Messi, the brooding captain, missed a penalty against Iceland in the Group D opener. That’s two points gone right there. Then goalkeeper Willy Caballero sloppily gifted Ante Rebic the first goal in Thursday’s second half against the Blazers. His teammates lacked any sort of fortitude to work their way back into the encounter and conceded twice more.
Following the loss, Argentina’s TyC Sports panel held a moment of silence as they pondered the corpse. Nothing tongue-in-cheek about the exercise; they, like much of their country’s media, needed a short, quiet moment before unloading on the players who had just embarrassed them.
“I saw Messi very subdued, like never before,” wrote four-time Copa Libertadores-winning manager Carlos Bianchi in Clarin. “I do not know what happened to him.”
Indeed, the Barcelona superstar who posed with a goat ahead of the World Cup, seemingly embracing a perceived status as the G.O.A.T., or “greatest of all time,” more resembled a kid in Nizhny Novgorod, a newborn, effectively immobile and ignored by the adults. He touched the ball just 49 times; his teammates looked for passing options other than him.
“This column does not talk about Messi because he was not on the field,” wrote Hector Gambini, also in Clarin. “And it is wrong to talk about the absent.”
Gambini’s colleague, Luis Vinker, likened the national team to “a boat adrift” and Messi to “a captain who did not know how to react.”
Perhaps appropriately, rumours quickly spread that the players had revolted against manager Jorge Sampaoli, even demanding his resignation ahead of the Nigeria match.
Those rumours were false, but their excitable and widespread propagation by fuming fans and pundits revealed a desire to do something big, something crazy, something that might really shake things up going into next week’s do-or-die showdown. La Nacion did concede that the players were “annoyed,” but that there had been and would be no rebellion against Sampaoli.
This is an Albiceleste setup so incompetent that it can’t even successfully stage a mutiny.
Back at their training base in Bronnitsy, a picturesque town southeast of Moscow that boasts a five-domed cathedral, disparate groups of Argentina players watched the Nigeria-Iceland match.
Messi was not among them, apparently shut in the hotel room he shares with Sergio Aguero. He hasn’t taken his meals with his teammates, either. He’s either inconsolable after the Croatia drubbing and dreading this competition’s effect on his legacy, or else he’s plotting Tuesday’s battle. He did, after all, carry his country into the World Cup with a hat-trick performance against Ecuador that already seems so long ago.
Either way, he seems to have withdrawn deep into himself, perhaps wearied by the burden he bears, perhaps believing the myth that he and he alone can save his country in Russia.
And it is a myth, albeit one that might as well have become actual, historical narrative by now, given its repetition by a sizable army of adherents.
But Messi, whether sulking in his hotel room or moping on the field, still has Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, Cristian Pavon and Angel Di Maria on his side.
Cristiano Ronaldo, by comparison, has the misfiring Goncalo Guedes and quirky veteran Ricardo Quaresma. And yet, “Ronaldo and 10 guys named ‘who’” has never been a descriptor, or excuse, used in the Portugal captain’s situation. He also has four goals at this World Cup.
The fact of the matter is this: Messi and his generation of Argentina internationals is a traumatized group. It came within a Higuain tap-in of winning the World Cup four years ago, only to lose in extra time. It lost the Copa America on penalties, twice. It is fragile, shattered.
Yes, it remains mathematically alive at this event, but there is little reason to anticipate a sudden, miraculous rejuvenation.
Ominously, Bronnitsy is as far as Napoleon and his armies advanced in 1812. They got no further. Their Russian campaign an unmitigated disaster, they turned around. They went home.