For the sixth time in a row, the final of the Copa América will feature an Argentine manager. Marcelo Bielsa in 2004 and Alfio Basile in 2007 took their homeland to defeats against Brazil, Gerardo Martino was involved for Paraguay in 2011 and Argentina in both 2015 and 2016, and in the latter two, the victorious Chileans were also managed by Argentines: Jorge Sampaoli in 2015 and Juan Antonio Pizzi in 2016. On Wednesday night, Ricardo Gareca’s Peru beat Chile 3-0 to set up a final against Brazil. The only Copa so far this century whose final did not have at least one team managed by an Argentine was the first Copa of the century, in 2001, as hosts Colombia beat Mexico. (That year, coincidentally, Argentina themselves did not take part owing to safety concerns.)
So how is it that Argentina came into this Copa with Lionel Scaloni, a rookie not just at this level but at any level of management, as their boss? There’s an argument to say that as much as a majority of the continent’s best managers of the last decade or two have been Argentine, but the AFA don’t seem to pick many of them; after Alejandro Sabella and the much-maligned (at least at the time) Gerardo Martino, the governing body of the Argentine game seems to have made it a policy to appoint managers who either manifestly aren’t good enough or, in the case of Sampaoli, have a personality (and, perhaps, a reverence for the generation of 2014) which clashes with the squad’s key players.
Politically, in the period of time in question, we are talking about three different AFAs: the tail end of Julio Grondona’s reign prior to his death shortly after the 2014 World Cup, followed by the grondonista interim under Luis Segura; the FIFA Regularization Committee interim during which Armando Pérez was in charge, and the current mandate of Claudio Tapia. The changes at the very top explain some of the lack of joined-up thinking in appointments, most obviously that of Edgardo Bauza, appointed by Pérez and sacked by Tapia at the earliest opportunity.
The changing of presidents obscures the fact that nearly all the men who make up the AFA’s Executive Committee – the presidents of the clubs – remain the same, though. Why did Martino prefer the Mexico job to a mooted return to Argentina this time last year? Some of it might have been the money on offer, sure. At least some of it, though, must have been the fact that those links were coming less than two years after essentially the same AFA board had driven Martino’s patience to breaking point by refusing to release players – and only a little over a year after he’d sued AFA for US$3 million in unpaid wages for himself and his technical team. Why on Earth would he have gone back?
None of it, though, explains why, when former player and Sampaoli’s video analyst Lionel Scaloni told the AFA he fancied becoming a manager last year, they responded by offering him first the Under-20 job and then the senior position. Okay, Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino are obviously way outside the AFA’s budget, even if they were at a stage of their careers where they might be interested. But what Gareca’s recent successes with Peru – not just getting them into their first Copa América final since 1975, but also last year when he led them to the World Cup for the first time since 1982 – underline is that there were better options available than Scaloni.
Gareca himself was linked, and vacillated for nearly a month after Russia 2018 before signing an extension to his Peru contract after no apparent contact had been made from the AFA. But following Argentina’s elimination in the semi-finals of this year’s Copa América at the hands of Brazil, who are the realistic contenders for the job? And who is the smart money on?
Gareca’s contract with Peru runs until 2021, when South America’s World Cup Qualifying ends, with an extension kicking in should they qualify for the main event. The other three main contenders are all also employed, all at club level – and all in Argentina.
The two most frequently mentioned names are River Plate boss Marcelo Gallardo and Vélez Sarsfield’s Gabriel Heinze. The other is Eduardo Coudet, who is talked about less. This surprises me, because his Racing won the league in March, and his record so far in management is enough to make clear that that wasn’t a fluke.
All three, like Gareca, play attacking football whenever they can, favouring a high press and building from the back – both in terms of constructing their team on a solid defence, and in terms of playing the ball on the pitch. All are happy to give youth a chance. All have stamped their personalities on their sides in impressive fashion.
Gallardo is the most interesting of the trio, partly because he’s won the most, including two Copas Libertadores in four attempts with River, and partly because River have been the side, of the three, who are most likely to mix up their style and compromise with a less offensive way of playing if circumstances demand. For all the nice football River are capable of playing, and – it must be admitted – in spite of disappointment in the semi-finals of last year’s Club World Cup – the factor Gallardo has instilled in them more than any other is of almost relentless big-game performances. If they can do that by scoring cracking goals and playing expansive football, then great, but if they have to dig in and play ugly, they will.
Heinze has been a mixed bag so far in management: a poor start in not the easiest of circumstances with Godoy Cruz was followed by an impressive promotion campaign at Argentinos Juniors, whom he led back to the top flight before resigning. At Vélez, he seems to have found a home, working well with what was, even before he came in, a young team, and building a side not too far from his own image at his peak as a player: solid in defence and swashbuckling in attack. Whether they really have his grit is something that has yet to be seen, but improvement in 2018–19 from a very poor 2017–18 season was astonishing.
Coudet had a mis-step in 2017, joining Tijuana in Mexico, where things didn’t go well, but before and after that short spell he showed enough to make clear he too is a manager with plenty of promise. In 2015, his Rosario Central finished third in the league and runners-up to Boca Juniors in the Copa Argentina, while the upturn in Racing’s form after he took charge midway through the 2017–18 Superliga season was instantaneous, and their football during the season just finished just as good.
With Gareca out of the reckoning, all three of the domestic cohort are former Argentina internationals, and all three are more experienced than Scaloni, even if Heinze still doesn’t have that many games under his belt. The most likely option, though? At this juncture, it appears to be Scaloni keeping the job. His contract runs until December, but the current received wisdom is that Tapia likes him as boss and has no plans to change in the new year. Gallardo has hardly got on well with the AFA, whereas Heinze has made no secret of his love for the national team, but Tapia seemingly wants to avoid the decision.
What does Tapia see in Scaloni? Substitutions that have never looked like swinging a game Argentina’s way, an ongoing belief that Ángel Di María can do anything for Argentina still (though in fairness, this is a belief Scaloni has shared with every other recent Argentina boss), a nagging feeling that there’s not actually much of a plan, even during the team’s best moments … where are the positives?
Lionel Messi spoke positively after the Brazil defeat about the generation coming through, and that is one thing Scaloni deserves some praise for: after a couple of managers who seemed too determined to keep giving the generation of the 2014 World Cup chances, Scaloni has called up new faces and refreshed the squad significantly. Lautaro Martínez has come on leaps and bounds, while there were signs against Venezuela in the quarter-final and against Brazil that Leandro Paredes, with a run of games under his belt at last, might finally have arrived for his country. At least one of the manager’s gambles also came off: Juan Foyth actually didn’t look bad at all at right back.
Scaloni is still learning on the job, then, and if the improbable happened and any of the other candidates had a falling-out with their clubs then the AFA would be foolish not to replace him. But for now, he looks like the manager Argentina have got. Those of us who’ve been asking for the AFA to put their faith in a project for a change might just need to accept that sometimes, you should be careful what you wish for.