Scaloni answers critics with Argentina’s World Cup final run

AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
Argentina’s head coach Lionel Scaloni attends a press conference ahead of the final soccer match between Argentina and France in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022.

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Argentina’s gamble paid off.

Criticism came quickly when Lionel Scaloni was hired as the unqualified, somewhat accidental coach of Argentina’s national team in 2018.

How, the nay-sayers said, could someone with no club experience — in fact, no senior coaching experience at all — be expected to lead a squad containing the great Lionel Messi?

The critics have gone quiet now. On Sunday, Scaloni will lead Argentina into the World Cup final against France, when the team will look to back up the triumph at last year’s Copa America — a title that ended the country’s 28-year trophy drought.

“The criticism seemed normal to me when I took the job and it still seems that way today,” Scaloni said Saturday. “Everything is magnified when you are the head coach of the Argentina team.

“I did my job, doing the best for the national team. The criticism never bothered me.”

Mastermind a win over France and Scaloni will go down as one of Argentina’s greatest ever coaches.

And he might call it a day right there.

Scaloni refused to answer any questions about his future in his last news conference before the final. There is a contract on the table through 2026 but, at the moment, he is keeping his options open.

That he is so popular and in demand is in stark contrast to his situation four years ago, when many wondered just what the Argentine soccer federation was doing in hiring a person with a thin resume that included only a couple of minor coaching roles with youth teams in Mallorca, where he lives, and Argentina. He was also part of the backroom staff with Argentina during the 2018 World Cup, when the team exited in the round of 16 amid a breakdown between coach Jorge Sampaoli and the players.

Scaloni, a former right back for the national team, took interim control when Sampaoli was fired soon after the World Cup. The plan was for him to lead the team for two friendly games before a more experienced coach was hired.

He has stuck around, having established a bond between the players and the fans that has manifested itself in an outpouring of pride and support through the World Cup. In front of a sea of blue-and-white fans at every match, Argentina’s team has fed off their energy to recover from losing to Saudi Arabia in their opening group match and reach the final.

For Scaloni, it’s been a beautiful ride. He cried in an interview on Saturday, like he has done a couple of times after matches during the World Cup. There will likely be tears on Sunday, too, especially if Argentina wins.

“This is part of what I’m feeling right now, this is part of our culture and everything we’re living in Argentina,” Scaloni said. “Everything that’s around us, the excitement of our people, the enthusiasm. We have the best fans in the world. They needed this joy — and we are giving them this joy and happiness.”

There’s plenty more to Scaloni than just emotions and man-management. He is showing tactical acumen, too, by shaping the team in such a way to get the best out of Messi and making game-to-game changes to formation and personnel that demonstrate his flexibility and knowledge of opposition. He also trusts in youth — 22 of the 26 players in his squad are playing at their first World Cup.

“I am in a dream position for every Argentine,” Scaloni said. “I am very proud and excited about the times we are living. This pressure is something to enjoy.

“The main thing was the road here, the goal that we set ourselves, and the fact we were able to enjoy the road here with a squad that is like a whole family. It is spectacular.”

Messi is part of that and, importantly, Scaloni and his assistants — former national team players Roberto Ayala, Walter Samuel and Pablo Aimar — have had the backing of Argentina’s star player.

“We have a very good coaching staff that leaves nothing to chance,” Messi said. “This group is very intelligent, they know how to read the moments of each game. Scaloni said it, we know how to suffer when we have to suffer and have the ball when we have to have it.”

Scaloni has one last opponent to overcome to get Argentina back to the summit of soccer. France is the defending champion and, in Kylian Mbappe, has the game’s latest superstar.

In Messi, though, Scaloni knows he has a player who can deliver what Argentina has been waiting 36 years for.

“We hope he can lift this trophy,” Scaloni said. “It would be wonderful. But the most important thing is to just enjoy Messi. And this is the best occasion possible — the World Cup final.”