One of the worst-kept secrets in recent football history has finally come to the light. Jorge Sampaoli was confirmed as Argentina’s new coach on Thursday after months of speculation and none-too subtle approaches from those in charge in Buenos Aires, signing a deal that will take him up to the end of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The spectacle made for unseemly viewing at times, as the Argentine Football Association (AFA) carried out their courting of the Sevilla coach with all the subtlety and finesse of an elephant let loose in a supermarket. The Spanish team in particular were left less than impressed with the way Edgardo Bauza’s successor in the Albiceleste came to leave Andalucia after just a single season in the hotseat.
To Argentina, however, the controversy will not matter a jot. They have landed their man, and ensured one of the most astute, tactically aware coaches in the world will be training Lionel Messi and the rest of the nation’s superstars for the foreseeable future.
Sampaoli is a man on the rise. Forced into early retirement as a player after a horrific double leg fracture at the tender age of 19 left him unable to retake the field, the little bald bundle of energy turned his attentions to coaching.
He cut his teeth in the local leagues of his native Casilda, and came to prominence when a photo of him coaching a final from up a tree emerged in nearby Rosario daily La Capital. That moment of madness caught the eye of Newell’s Old Boys president Eduardo Lopez, who gave Sampaoli a job at third-tier Argentino.
From there he went on to coach in Peru and Chile with a variety of clubs, before finally finding his feet with Santiago’s Universidad de Chile. Sampaoli lifted three Primera Division titles and the 2011 Copa Sudamericana in two short years at the U, in the process turning the team into one of the finest sides in South America.
It was at Universidad too that the coach perfected his strategic vision that he took with him later to Chile and Sevilla. Built on the high pressing and frenetic attacking typical of Marcelo Bielsa’s sides, Sampaoli added his own slightly more pragmatic interpretation, building from the back but not shying away from pumping the ball forward and to the flanks to keep defences off-guard.
Bielsa himself admitted in a recent interview that his would-be protégé had already surpassed him in the game: “He is no disciple of mine, he is better.
“One of a coach’s greatest strengths should be his flexibility, in other words not falling in love with his own ideas. I cannot compromise my ideas and it is not a strength, it is a weakness. Sampaoli can compromise because he has the power to adapt that I have never possessed. That makes him better than me, without a doubt.”
That flexibility allowed Chile to triumph in the 2015 Copa America over an Argentina team far superior on paper, suffocating the likes of Messi and Gonzalo Higuain with a stunning defensive play before prevailing on the lottery of penalties. It was a departure from the cavalier football that had seen the Roja smash 13 goals in five games prior to the final, but devastatingly effective.
In Sevilla, too, the coach showed his willingness to incorporate new elements into his basic game-plan to lift the team, with the additions of Samir Nasri and Stevan Jovetic two inspired signings that ensured fourth place and a Champions League spot, even when a year of hectic play started to take its toll on tired legs.
Now he has an opportunity most coaches would die for: taking the reins of a nation that, for all its recent underachievement, boast a depth of talent almost unequalled elsewhere in international football. "This is a dream come true," he admitted in his first press conference, visibly moved by the prospect of coaching the side. There is a saying, how great it is to be close to something that you admired from afar, and this felt very far away at times." Only the Argentina job could arguably have tempted him away from his unfinished business at Sevilla, and he goes into the job with unbridled energy and hopes for the future.
But if Sampaoli can barely hide his enthusiasm at landing the job he was sorely tempted to take last year in the wake of Gerardo Martino’s resignation, the feeling should be mutual. The coach worked alongside new national team director Juan Sebastian Veron to put together his first squad to take on Brazil and Singapore later this month, and the results are more than encouraging.
Gone are the perennial underachievers for the Albiceleste, at least for the time being. Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi have both been dropped for the Australian tour and Javier Mascherano, originally included before his injury, had been earmarked to finally move into central defence. The likes of Leandro Paredes, Emanuel Mammana, Manuel Lanzini and Joaquin Correa give the squad the fresh look it has lacked for almost a decade, while the inclusion of Mauro Icardi ends one of the more ridiculous football exiles and deservedly so.
Striking a balance between the old faces and new will be a challenge for Sampaoli. So too will be finding the perfect position to make the most out of Lionel Messi, the man who so often has had to bear the weight of pushing Argentina forward almost single-handedly.
Graduates of the Newell’s youth system, the pair enjoy a close relationship. But they will come under immediate scrutiny, as the challenge of red-hot Brazil looms in the coach’s very first game in charge. That and the Singapore clash will be the only matches Sampaoli has to gauge what his best team is before the World Cup qualifiers roll around once more in August, with Argentina far from guaranteed a spot in Russia 2018 going into this final stretch.
He will need time to make his mark, and long-suffering Albiceleste supporters should not be expecting an overnight miracle after almost months of chronic underachieving under Bauza.
But one thing is for certain: In landing Sampaoli, Argentina have secured themselves a world-class coach, perhaps the only one still left in international football since Antonio Conte returned to the club game with Chelsea last year — and neither they nor the man himself can afford to waste this opportunity.