BUENOS AIRES: Argentina hope their new coach Jorge Sampaoli’s magic touch, along with returning striker Lionel Messi’s magic skills, will spirit them through a rocky qualifying campaign to the 2018 World Cup.
Sampaoli moved a step closer to taking over the vacant position as Argentina coach on Friday (Saturday in Manila) as his current club side Sevilla said it had reached a deal with the Argentine Football Association (AFA).
In one year at Sevilla he coached them to an impressive fourth place in the Spanish league, behind the might of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
Now he is leaving Sevilla fans and management disgruntled and coming back to his home country just when it needs him.
“I always dreamed of (coaching) the national team,” Sampaoli, 57, said recently.
“I want to get back to talent and the art of dribbling, in order to move forward.”
Argentina will be grateful if he just gets them on the plane to Russia 2018.
In March they looked like they risked failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1970.
That was after a humiliating defeat to Bolivia and Messi’s four-match suspension for swearing at a referee.
The ban has since been lifted and the two-time world champions— ranked number two in the world by FIFA—face an uphill struggle, in fifth place in their qualifying group.
Argentina face four further World Cup qualifying games, starting with a stern test away to Uruguay in August.
Only the top four qualify automatically for the tournament in Russia next year with fifth-place earning a playoff against the winners of the Oceania region.
Messi is one of the world’s biggest soccer stars, but his glory days with Barcelona have coincided with a dark period for his national team.
Argentina have won only one of eight World Cup 2018 qualifiers played without him, compared to five out of six won with him on the pitch.
The national side’s malaise is a mystery at first glance, given their star quality with various players in top European clubs.
But the team has been undermined by a broader crisis afflicting the Argentina game, tangled up with politics and a power struggle in the AFA management that broke out in 2014.
Argentina’s World Cup hero Diego Maradona last year branded the AFA’s management a “mafia.” The federation in March picked new executives tasked with ending the turmoil.
Pride and joy
Sampaoli faces a big challenge at the helm of an Argentina team widely regarded, despite its ranking, as playing an ugly game and relying on the outsize talent of Messi for wins.
The team needs a morale boost after a difficult 2016, when Messi threatened to quit the squad after they lost on penalties to Chile in the Copa America Centenario final.
That crisis prompted then-coach Gerardo Martino to quit and be replaced by Edgardo Bauza, who was fired last month.
“You have to try to imbue the players with a love of the shirt,” Sampaoli said.
“With enjoyment of the game — not with a sense of obligation.”
Sampaoli will start his reign with friendlies against Brazil on June 9 in Australia and against Singapore on June 13.
The latest Argentina lineup announced by the AFA notably excludes Manchester City star Sergio Aguero, but includes a potential rising star, Inter Milan goalscorer Mauro Icardi.
Sampaoli has top credentials, having coached Chile to a Copa America title in 2015 — beating Messi’s Argentina in the final.
The manager has coached several teams in Ecuador, Peru and Chile, but never a top-league Argentine side.
He has described himself as a disciple of another Argentine coach who has made a mark with Chile and in Europe: Lille coach Marcelo Bielsa.
The latter played down the compliment.
“He is better than me,” Bielsa said.