Football in the South American country is in chaos. Days before Argentina’s football association had been removed pending criminal investigation, Albiceleste suffered a second consecutive Copa America final defeat. Afterwards, the coach promptly resigned leading to a rudderless search for a new boss. To make matters worse, the jewel of the Argentine crown, Lionel Messi, also retired.
With just a few weeks to go until the 2016 Rio Olympics, The Panenka looks at the state of things for the two-time World Cup Champions.
Before Argentina lost on penalties to Chile in the 2016 Copa America Centenario final, it emerged that the president of the Argentina Football Association (AFA) was under investigation for embezzlement.
Under-fire Argentina Football Federation president Luis Segura stands accused of embezzlement in connection with government’s program to manage broadcasting rights during football championships and national matches, particularly concerning the distribution of broadcasting revenue between clubs.
The alleged corruption reportedly spread to the Argentine government with the defendants consisting of six additional AFA directors and three of former president Cristina Kirchner’s cabinet chiefs: Anibal Fernandez, Jorge Capitanich and Juan Abal Medina.
Former president Kirchner spearheaded the government initiative entitled “Football for All” in 2009. The program allowed Argentines to watch major football matches for free without a subscription. However, “according to the documents we have submitted to the judge, there is money that did not reach the clubs,” said Alberto Piotti, a former judge appointed by the court to audit the AFA.
As a result the entire AFA board was removed and replaced by a “normalizing committee” selected by FIFA and Conembol (the governing body for South American football). Despite the irony of one under-investigation governing body removing another and taking over as the voice of authority, this committee has picked up the reins of “AFA’s day-to-day management, revise its statutes to bring them with FIFA’s statutes and regulations,” a FIFA statement read.
Luis Segura subsequently resigned weeks after the allegations were brought to him. This cleared the way for the organizing committee led by interim chief Damian Dupuilliet, currently a puppet figurehead but the favorite to win the next election, to organize the national team ahead of Rio 2016.
The next AFA election is due to take place “by 30 June 2017 at the latest.” A vote had been due to take place on the same date in 2016 but FIFA suspended any decision until further notice. FIFA have elected Cordoba’s Belgrano president Armando Perez as the head of the AFA until elections are held.
Segura originally rose to power within the AFA as an unelected “interim president” after the death of predecessor Julio Grondona who died aged 82 in 2014. His passing after 35 years in charge left a severe power vacuum that was not filled by democratic means. The result could destroy the domestic game in Argentina altogether.
The lack of solid leadership in the AFA over the last two years has led to disputes within the Primera Division where club giants River Plate, Boca Juniors, Racing and San Lorenzo are threatening to form a breakaway league. According to journalist Daniel Avellaneda of newspaper Clarin, the movement “now has the backing of 11 clubs” who “want to advance with the model that works in Spain and the U.K.” Again, like the corruption scandal, the proportion of revenue from television rights shared among the clubs is driving the argument.
When Argentina took on Chile in the 2016 Copa America final history repeated itself. Just like the 2015 final in Santiago, it was another 0-0 and another championship settled via penalty kicks.
It was a fraught affair with a red card apiece. The best chance of the game fell to Gonzalo Higuain who couldn’t convert after being expertly set up by Lionel Messi. It was a glaring miss that the forward can add to his collection alongside the unforgettable chance wasted in the 2014 World Cup final defeat to Germany.
After Marcelo Diaz and Marcus Rojo had been dismissed before half-time, Chile spent most of the game thwarting Argentina’s attacks which, despite Messi’s best efforts, took the game to penalties. Chile won the shootout to record only their second major trophy.
Lionel Messi was one of two Argentina players to miss in the penalty shootout and the Barcelona forward couldn’t hide his disappointment. After the game has been settled he was distraught, he rested his forehead on the grass in tears waiting for the ground to swallow him whole, inconsolable. It was his fourth defeat in a major final in nine years.
It is purely speculative to suggest that the corruption allegations had an effect of Argentina’s Copa America defeat to Chile. What is certain however, is that the impact of both the court’s investigation and the penalty shootout, set of chain of events that continues to rock Argentinian football.
After the final whistle Lionel Messi announced his retirement from international football. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner had won eight La Liga titles and four UEFA Champions Leagues but a major international tournament winners medal with Albiceleste has always eluded him.
“For me, the national team is over,” he said. “I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion.
“It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it, so I think it’s over. I think this is best for everyone. First of all for me, then for everyone. I think there’s a lot of people who want this, who obviously are not satisfied, as we are not satisfied reaching a final and not winning it.
“It’s very hard, but the decision is taken. Now I will not try more and there will be no going back. It’s been four finals, I tried.
“On top of everything, I missed the penalty kick,” added Messi, who made his debut for Argentina in 2005 and has played 113 times for his country.
Around the world the news still hasn’t truly sunk in, it’s like we’re all in denial. It seems that only when, and if, Argentina line up at the 2018 World Cup in Russia without him, will the announcement be truly acknowledged.
As Argentina’s 23-year wait for a trophy continues, both Javier Mascherano and Sergio Aguero also pledged to retire from international football. Furthermore, the entire coaching staff tendered their resignations as boss Gerardo Martino led the exodus in vacating his post citing “serious problems,” leaving Argentinian football without a paddle for the 2016 Rio Olympics just a month away.
According to an AFA statement: “The national team’s technical staff have decided to hand in their resignation. Due to uncertainty over the designation of new authorities in the Argentine Football Association and the serious problems in putting together the team that will represent the country in the Olympic Games, the staff have chosen to resign.”
Julio Olarticoechea was the man selected to take Argentina into the Olympics by FIFA’s “normalizing committee.” The former Argentina U-20 coach has faced a baptism of fire since his introduction with numerous players dropping out or their clubs refusing to release them.
World-class players such as Juventus’ Paulo Dybala, Inter’s Mauro Icardi, Atlético Madrid’s Luciano Vietto, Independiente’s Víctor Cuesta and Vélez Sarsfield’s Lautaro Gianetti were not allowed to join the squad. Meanwhile, Jonathan Calleri of Sao Paulo reveled he would be in Brazil but would rather be playing in the two-legged Copa Libertadores semi-final than at the Olympics. Still, the incumbent coach remained positive.
“It’s a shame that they (soccer clubs) don’t allow their players to join the national team — the whole world will be watching us. But if we have to go with 13 or 14 players, we will do it and represent the country well,” said a confident Olarticoechea in a press conference at AFA’s facilities in Ezeiza.
“We got the team out with forceps,” Argentina Olympic Committee (COA) president Gerardo Werthein told La Nacion after fearing last week he might not have a squad for the Games. Regardless of any selection dilemma, Albiceleste will make its debut in Rio against Portugal on August 4th. The Albiceleste share the group Algeria and Honduras.
A former midfielder and member of the victorious1986 World Cup squad, Olarticoechea faced competition for the job. In a strange development, due to the unsettling of the Argentinian football universe, Lazio coach Marcelo Bielsa walked out on his contract with the Italian club with the reported intention of taking the post with Argentina.
Bielsa is now receiving the details of legal proceedings against him having penned a deal with laziojust days before. His defense will claim that he quit due to the breach of an agreement that promised the club would sign certain players in a predetermined time frame to allow the hot-headed coach sufficient time to prepare them for the coming season. However, while the tentacles of Argentina’s mismanagement remain unbound, it is not hard to connect the dots of Bielsa’s intentions.
Hundreds of Argentinians rallied in the pouring rain pleading for Lionel Messi’s return to the national football team after he unexpectedly quit. They gathered on Saturday evening around the Obelisco, a monument on one of the central avenues in Buenos Aires where fans traditionally celebrate sporting victories. Banners were flown saying “No te vayas Lio” (Lio, don’t go).
Amidst the turmoil and uncertainty, the general feeling is that Messi returning to the national team can cure the ills of corruption and bungling mishandling of one of the strongest football nations on the planet. The reality however is that the great man is tired of trying, sick of failure and reached his limit. As the great man said: “I’ve done all I can. On top of everything, I missed the penalty kick.” Now, Argentina must move on.