It was a curse of bad timing. Neither Diego Simeone nor Jorge Sampaoli were willing to quit their jobs to take on the coaching role for the Argentina national team following the Copa Centenario meltdown in July.
Simeone is locked into a contract at Atletico Madrid until 2018 and would not do it on a part-time basis while Sampaoli would not walk out on a Sevilla side he joined only weeks before. The other preferred candidate for the Argentine Football Association – Mauricio Pochettino – was not ready to quit Tottenham either.
Argentina ended up with Edgardo Bauza – a Copa Libertadores winner with San Lorenzo in 2014 – but in reality is a yesterday’s man looking increasingly out of his depth.
Bauza scored one victory off the field – the return of Lionel Messi after his self-imposed exile – before his only victory on it so far. Messi scored in a disjointed 1-0 win over Luis Suarez’s Uruguay in early September. Since then it’s all gone downhill for Bauza.
Argentina is placed fifth in the South American World Cup qualification section following draws against Venezuela and Peru and a defeat at home to Paraguay. The side has played 10 qualifiers so far and only three of those have been with Messi in the lineup. With him in the lineup, Argentina has won them all. Of the seven he’s not played, they’ve won once.
That loss in Cordoba two weeks ago unleashed a tide of anger towards the national team with one local commentator begging on air for Sergio Aguero to retire. Bauza has picked up flak for his selections, sticking rigidly to a 4-2-3-1 and failing to light a spark between Gonzalo Higuain and Aguero. The whole thing needs to be freshened up but Bauza is not the man to do it.
The only thing he has proven capable of igniting is a row between the AFA and Barcelona over Messi. Bauza criticized the Catalans for failing to take care of Messi properly while constantly reminding Argentina to do the same. The AFA issued an apology on his behalf but he himself refuses to row back.
He has also had to defend himself from accusations that Messi is dictating team selections. It’s not the first time this charge has been laid against the Argentina captain but this time it’s said to be personal. Mauro Icardi cannot get a call-up and it was suspected that Messi was preventing it due to the Inter striker’s relationship with Maxi Lopez’s ex-wife Wanda Nara. Lopez, formerly of Barcelona, is a good friend of Messi. Not true, insists Bauza, who did however concede that Messi is not afraid to speak his mind on team matters.
All in all Argentina could not be in worse shape with Brazil awaiting them in Belo Horizonte on Nov. 11.
The stagnation could have been halted with the appointment of either Simeone or Sampaoli and Argentinians know it. Bauza was no better than fourth choice for the job and is scarcely competent enough to have control of high-quality players such as Messi. For the man himself – and for the sake of the team – it feels like an opportunity missed.
Messi is never going to leave Barcelona – at least not for Atletico Madrid or Sevilla. Luis Enrique is doing a fine job maintaining the balance in the Barcelona lineup but it’s arguable that Messi has not had a “Messi level” coach for club or country since Pep Guardiola left in 2012. It’s frightening to think what might happen if a man with ideas such as Simeone or Sampaoli got hold of him – even for a few days a year in a national team setting.
Simeone is such a game-changer that the world no longer speaks of Spain’s big two but instead its big three. There have been multiple titles – the cream of which was the 2014 La Liga victory – plus two more Champions League finals. Along the way he has built a unit of such collective strength that it is easy to imagine all 11 men on the field for Atletico thinking with the same brain – that of Simeone.
He has made a world class forward of Antoine Griezmann and is in the process of doing the same with Yannick Carrasco. It might have taken Simeone a while to match the development of his attackers to that of his defenders but he is now a complete coach – capable of improving individuals in technical and psychological capacities as well as setting teams out to reach objective goals together. What he could do with a team spearheaded by a fit, motivated Messi at a World Cup is anyone’s guess.
Bauza says he’s convinced Argentina will win it in Russia but he sounds more Moyes than Mourinho in his prognostications.
Sampaoli meanwhile is finally in Europe and delivering. Sevilla is third in La Liga and looking good for progress in the Champions League too after a hard-fought win in Zagreb in midweek. There was a huge turnover of players in the summer with many key men departing but the adaptation process looks like it is going smoothly.
Sampaoli has a relentless commitment to attacking football, to possession football and takes his leads from Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola – the same Guardiola who made Messi.
“He has his ideas as you has seen at the matches but I’m personally really happy because he loves attacking football and I enjoy it,” Sevilla player Pablo Sarabia told Goal this week. “We know what he wants, we know his ideas when we attack and we defend. I think that everyone sees these ideas on the pitch but there is work to do yet because he has a really different idea than in other years here."
He has a track record in international football too, of course, having led Chile to a first-ever Copa America title on home soil last year. He did it by marrying his intense football to the individual qualities in the squad. Even the likes of Jorge Valdivia – so many years a lost talent – was convinced to put in a little bit more. Hard work and sacrifice are necessary qualities in a Sampaoli team and the rewards are there. Furthermore, there is a clear understanding from Sampaoli of how to protect Messi and how to get the best from him.
"I think that whoever cannot recognize Messi as the best is a fool,” he told Goal earlier this year. “What I would tell that man is that Leo does not play like he does in Barcelona for Argentina because here he may not enjoy himself.
"We have to make people accept that he can play well and badly, for Leo to feel loved. If we do not enjoy him, nothing can make us happy. I can assure you that all the comments reach Messi and make him feel bad, and that feeling enters the pitch.”
Sunday brings together two of the keenest minds in world football and two who declined the opportunity to take charge of their homeland in preparation for the World Cup. How poorer Argentina is for it. And whether Messi had another gear to go to – well we can only speculate.