World Cup 2022: Why Lionel Scaloni’s popularity can help Argentina bounce back

Lionel Scaloni had been retired for a year and was feeling an emptiness inside that was difficult to ignore. The former West Ham full-back missed football so much that he was willing to ring Son Caliu, the amateur club next to his home in the island of Mallorca, to say that he was available to work with their kids if they had a position for him.

And so he did back in 2016. It was then, after a training session, that he heard the news that Lionel Messi had decided to quit international football. He couldn’t believe it and decided to tweet a picture of his ex-team-mate in that year’s Copa America final with a desperate message.

“This image says it all… Don’t go Lio,” he wrote.

Scaloni couldn’t know back then, but six years on he’s working at his first World Cup as manager, having been able so far 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 beginning of ‘La Scaloneta’, as the team has been nicknamed since then. The 44-year-old coach is now the country’s most popular man.

So much so that, even before the campaign in Qatar kicked off with a surprise defeat by Saudi Arabia last Tuesday, he has already had his contract renewed until 2026. The last Argentine manager to have remained in charge after a World Cup was Marcelo Bielsa in 2002.

It’s a testament to his immense popularity.

Though the opening game in Doha didn’t go at all as planned and has gone down as one of the biggest World Cup upsets ever, the entire team and fans have a blind confidence in their coach.

“This baptism in Qatar is full of surprises for Messi and company,” said Argentine newspaper La Nacion after Saudi’s stunning win but it won’t dent their confidence what has been built by Scaloni – not yet anyway.

“If it’s 10 in the morning and Scaloni tells us good night, then it’s night for us, too,” Atletico Madrid midfielder Rodrigo de Paul said.

Unlike what happened in the past, Messi and Co now look to the dugout and see one of their own. If they are recover from Tuesday’s defeat, 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’ve got a coaching staff with Scaloni and other former footballers such as [Pablo] Aimar, [Roberto] Ayala and [Walter] Samuel, who went through a lot of things with Argentina’s shirt, know what it represents and are able to pass it through,” ex-international midfielder Lucho Gonzalez tells BBC Sport.

“And then we have a group that, you can see very clearly, works with joy when they get together. We also have the world’s best player, but the team makes him feel well and doesn’t rely solely on him. That’s been key to this process.”

‘He will go to the motorcycling World Cup, not the football one’

Scaloni mania was in full swing in Argentina in the build-up to this World Cup, but no one could have predicted it when the man from the small village of Pujato was first appointed as caretaker manager following the calamitous Russia 2018 campaign.

The criticism was such that even the legendary Diego Maradona said at the time that the only World Cup he would go was the motorcycling one, not the football one.

A reserved and down-to-earth person, Scaloni listened to all that, but chose not to answer. Having worked as Jorge Sampaoli’s assistant at Sevilla and then followed him to the national team in Russia, he couldn’t argue much about his lack of experience. After all, two years before, he was still training kids in his neighborhood club.

“We went to the 2006 World Cup together, but, despite his extraordinary career, I could not imagine that he would become the manager that he is now,” recalls Lucho, who is starting his coaching life as well. “It’s only natural that he was a bit questioned at the beginning. The media didn’t know much about his capacity, but it has proved to be a very smart move from the federation.

“I believe that time has shown that, if you don’t focus too much on the early results, the processes work. And they have worked.”

No separate tables in ‘La Scaloneta’

The sense in Argentina is that ‘La Scaloneta’ have a great togetherness, forged over several 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 whenever they are in the camp: all players should sit at the same table and be able to look each other in the eyes.

It’s no wonder that, arguably for the first time since 2006, the Argentines truly believe they can win the World Cup. Not even the Saudi result has changed that.

“It usually doesn’t matter how you arrive to these tournaments but obviously getting there as one of the title contenders and with such a great atmosphere excite the fans,” says Lucho.

“It is a special World Cup, our first one without Maradona, a beloved man by all Argentines, and especially by me, who would always be around in these moments, but I have no doubt that he is supporting us from above.”

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