Lionel Messi, Jorge Sampaoli and the whole of Argentina brace for World Cup D-Day

Ed Malyon
Lionel Messi will turn 31 next summer and Argentina know this is most likely his final shot at World Cup glory: Getty

Monumental. Not just the sort of day it would be were Argentina to fail to reach the World Cup, but also the name of the stadium where the Albiceleste most often play, the home of River Plate and the venue of the most apocalyptic moment in the country’s recent football history.

When River, the country’s most decorated club, were relegated to the second tier in 2011 there were riots in the streets that extended far beyond Nuñez, the well-heeled neighbourhood in the north of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, that is home to Los Millonarios.

Disorder and destruction descended on the entire city and beyond, with incidents reported as far south as Santa Cruz in Patagonia and as far north as Salta, on the Bolivian border. But for all River’s support, the chaos should Argentina miss out on World Cup 2018 would be altogether far more anarchic. If they’re losing in injury time, board up your windows.

Now, for that to happen on Tuesday night it would require Ecuador to win for the first time in six World Cup qualifiers. But this is a game played in the altitude of Quito, at the Estadio Atahualpa where Ecuador won seven of eight qualifiers en route to World Cup 2014. This qualifying campaign hasn’t been the same for them and they’re already on their third coach since Reinaldo Rueda, the brilliant Colombian who took them to Brazil and resigned following that World Cup exit. Ecuador beat Chile here, and that performance will be their blueprint for trying to derail Argentina, rather than the subsequent limp defeats.

Jorge Sampaoli knows Ecuador. When he was a jobbing coach, finding his way in the game, he spent years taking jobs around South America and that included a spell in Guayaquil with Emelec. Traditionally the club of Ecuador’s electricity provider, Sampaoli provided Emelec with some spark and led them to finish top of the league before being poached by Universidad de Chile - the job that truly launched his career as we know it now.

His brief but successful time in Ecuador means he is seen somewhat more positively there than he is in Argentina right now. Replacing the hapless Edgardo Bauza, Sampaoli appeared to be onto a surefire winner after boosting his reputation in Europe from an impressive season with Sevilla before going home to the one job he’d always wanted. But four qualifiers now with no victories have Argentina on the precipice and defeat is unthinkable.


With that in mind, there is some concern over Sampaoli’s selection for the upcoming game given his bizarre XI in the last one. Yes, he is a system coach who selects players that he thinks are most suited to his formation and yes, Paulo Dybala had said it’s difficult to play with Lionel Messi.

But if you are playing Dario Benedetto ahead of a potential Ballon d’Or winner then you are doing it wrong. There are no exceptions.

Angel Di Maria is a doubt, which deprives Argentina of some of their energy and creativity, but the hope is that there is just too much quality in this team for them to lose in Quito and completely miss out.

Even a draw should get Argentina a play-off spot at worst and while the travel to New Zealand would be considerable, rational thought tells us that a month to prepare should be enough to knock off the All Whites over two legs.

And yet the nerves are so great and the pressure so immense that it doesn't feel like a time where rational thought can triumph. Argentina is nervous and it is anxious, not just for missing a World Cup - which would be unthinkable - but because of its greater significance.

For years after Diego Maradona, football in Argentina searched for his successor. They anointed one after another, from Diego Latorre to Andres D’Alessandro, but nobody came close.

And then there was Lionel Messi.

It shows how generation-defining Messi has been that this country will never again talk of finding the new Maradona, but the heir to Messi, and coming close to missing out on Russia 2018 has made Argentina realise that not only have they been blessed with one all-time great but two. Should they miss this chance with Messi though, that is it. He’s already retired from internationals once and it is accepted that he will quit the national team after the World Cup.

But what if they don’t get there?

Argentina faces a monumental task in Ecuador not just because they’re playing at altitude but because Sampaoli is battling his demons, because Argentina - and the world - need Messi in Russia next summer for one last global showcase and because the scenes should they not qualify would be too disastrous for words.