Under-20 World Cup exit highlights worrying trend for Argentina
This time, there was no miracle for Argentina's under-20 side.
At the start of the year, Argentina qualified for the Under-20 World Cup in extraordinary fashion. In the South American Championships, held in Ecuador, some heavy defeats seemed to leave them with no chance. As their penultimate game came to a close, the team could have been forgiven for mentally packing their bags for home. But with the very last move of the match, they scored an equaliser against Brazil that kept their hopes alive.
On the last day, the final slot available came down to Argentina or Brazil. Argentina did their bit, beating Venezuela. Then came the agonising wait. Up in the stands in Quito, they had to watch as Brazil took on Colombia. The Colombians were already eliminated. Brazil just had to win to make sure -- and they were held to a goalless draw. Hardly believing their eyes, the Argentina players and coach celebrated their qualification for the U-20 World Cup in South Korea.
Fast-forward to Sunday and here, too, they needed another miracle. Argentina lost their opening two World Cup games, 3-0 to England and 2-1 to the hosts. There was still a chance of advancing to the next stage, and the team did their utmost to make sure they seized it by defeating Guinea 5-0 in their last group game.
Twelve slots in the round of 16 are reserved for the teams finishing first and second in each of the six groups. Four of the best third-place teams also qualify for the knockout stages. Four of the best third-place teams also qualify. Once again, relying on other results, Argentina would have to sit and wait and hope that their total of three points with a plus-one goal difference would be enough.
In the end, it came down to the final game Sunday, between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. For Argentina to qualify, the U.S. had to win. It all seemed to be following the script when the Americans took the lead. But then they had a man sent off, the pressure mounted and the Saudis claimed an equaliser. Argentina were going home.
Of course, results in under-20 football are never the be-all and end-all. The matches take place in a wider context of player development. But there is a pattern here.
Between 1995 and 2007, Argentina won the U-20 World Cup (contested every two years) on five occasions. More importantly, they produced a conveyor belt of talent that moved through to the senior side. But by the end of that run, the clouds were gathering. In 2008, when the country won the Olympic title, then-coach Sergio Batista used a moment of triumph to issue a warning: Youth football in Argentina, he said, was in decline. Subsequent results have borne him out. The country has ceased to be such a major force in U-20 football, and, especially in defensive positions, that conveyor belt of talent has slowed down. The consequence is that the current senior team, horribly dependent on Lionel Messi, is struggling to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The former Chile and Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli is about to be presented as Argentina's third coach during the World Cup qualification campaign. Given his track record of producing dynamic, high-tempo attacking sides, this is an exciting development. But there is one worrying aspect. During his time in charge of Chile, there was little contact between the senior side and the under-20s. Sampaoli, apparently, did not take much responsibility for grooming the next generation, an urgent task with the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal now in their late 20s.
The good news is that a figure as respected as Juan Sebastian Veron has taken over as director of Argentina's youth sides. Veron, who played the last game of his distinguished career last week, has a key role in getting right this vital area of his country's football. Sampaoli is more than a short-term fix. He comes with a fascinating idea of play, one that could be the template for the future.
But in the long term, Veron's work is at least as important.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.