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Argentina's World Cup woes

Five Aside
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Argentina, Peru eye World Cup qualification

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 By Sam Kelly

Lionel Messi's apparent retirement caused by Argentina FA in chaos

At around midday on Monday, the offices of the Asociacion de Futbol Argentino (AFA) received an anonymous phone call to inform them that there was a bomb in the building. The identity of the caller is still as yet unknown but such a chaotic scene was entirely in keeping with the situation within the institution over the past few weeks and months, a situation that, until the bomb threat, seemed to reach its most dramatic head with the apparent international resignation of Lionel Messi after Sunday night's Copa America Centenario final.

When that post-final TV interview was given, there was shock at the news that the planet's best footballer was hanging up his (international) boots at the age of just 29. But in the context of his disagreements with the governing body that runs the national team, the decision begins to look less surprising and also, perhaps, less final.

"The national team is over, for me," was the quote from Messi to Argentine TV before passing through the mixed zone which brought into focus for fans back home the enormity of defeat in a third consecutive tournament final. But far from being a reaction to another failure -- as even Messi claimed -- it seems, once the background is considered, to be one born out of frustration with the way the AFA is governed.

A "normalization committee" from FIFA and CONMEBOL is currently in Buenos Aires with the aim of overseeing the running of the AFA,after recent scandals at the association. Late last year, the attempt to elect a president ended in farce after 75 club directors somehow managed to produce a 38-38 tie between incumbent Luis Segura and TV mogul (and San Lorenzo vice-president) Marcelo Tinelli. This year, judge Maria Servini de Cubria has been investigating the destinations of government funds intended to be paid for Primera Division TV rights. Her findings so far have caused FIFA's committee to be called into action.

There was speculation late last week and over the weekend that Servini de Cubria would object to FIFA's presence, a move that could be seen by the world governing body as government interference in footballing affairs and could therefore have resulted in Argentine national teams and clubs being excluded from international competition. The timing of the objection meant no worries over Argentina's participation in the final, but showing his annoyance on behalf of the players, AFA president Luis Segura told the media on Saturday that FIFA's announcement of the normalisation committee "on the Friday before we play a final is very inopportune." The judge headed off those fears in a formal communication with FIFA on Monday -- but on Sunday night, when Messi gave his interview, impending de-affiliation was one more of the worries hanging over the team.

The AFA at present, then, is an organisation without a president, or at least a president with any authority (Segura reiterated on Monday that he will stand down on Thursday), and in a state of chaos. Through mismanagement or corruption (Servini de Cubria's investigation will decide which), they have so little money that they owe many of the country's biggest clubs huge amounts of cash." As a result, the national team looks like it is being hawked around, made to play too many friendlies in far-flung locations to try to fill the AFA's coffers.

When Argentina play a friendly, there's one price if Messi's involved, and another -- much lower -- if he's not. (Guillermo Tofoni, who was involved in arranging these exhibition games, estimated that the team makes roughly a million dollars without the Barca star, but that figure can rise to $1.5 million.)

Added to all this, until May manager Gerardo Martino and his staff had not been paid in six months. Martino is far from universally popular among fans but the players feel solidarity with him and the coaching staff. The one thing that players, fans, coaches and critics seem to be in agreement on is that the real problem with the Argentine national team is the directors at the AFA.

Messi's quotes on Sunday night, then, should be taken with all this context in mind, as should those of the other players who hinted after the Chile defeat that they might also leave the international game behind.

Gerardo Martino might also leave as the AFA struggles to deal with reorganisation and a lack of money.

Reports on Monday evening indicated Martino might be joining the players in tendering his resignation, but a tweet from the national team's official Twitter account stating he and his staff would be back at work on Monday planning for the Olympic Football Tournament seemed timed to scotch those suggestions.

On Tuesday, newspaper La Nacion said that their sources in the camp suggest Martino had never thought of stepping down. The idea of the manager standing down after the Olympics doesn't seem far-fetched, but the worry then is that there are few or no apparent candidates ready to take his place, with a World Cup qualifying doubleheader shortly after Rio 2016.

That tournament will provide a good indicator as to which players might form part of the future of the national team if a change of players is desired. After three final defeats in two years, it's possible Martino feels the team's psychology might be helped by an influx of new talent. But how the national team picks itself up on the pitch is probably for another article. Without clear leadership from the FA, it's impressive that the current players have done as well as they have. Now, though, it seems that the patience of some of them is snapping.

In short, it wouldn't necessarily have been surprising to see Messi and his teammates make the same declarations after lifting the trophy on Sunday; the news shouldn't be read as a simple expression of frustration at defeat.

Many fans seem more devastated by Messi's announcement than by the defeat itself. As agonising as it was to come up short again, fans didn't place as much importance on this Copa as on last year's, or of course the World Cup. My girlfriend's dad, for example, referred to it as a "Copa de Leche," ("Milk Cup," Argentine slang for a meaningless bauble) while we watched Saturday's third-place playoff together. No more Messi, though, is a big thing.

Perhaps for the first time in his international career, the country finally seems united regarding his importance to the side. As the old saying goes, you don't know what you've got till it's gone, but given the context of the decision, many here suspect Lionel Messi might turn out not to have played his last game for Argentina just yet.

Sam Kelly covers Argentine football and the Argentine national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @HEGS_com.

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