- Marcos Alves
- BBC Sport
A year after retiring from football, Lionel Scaloni felt a huge emptiness that was hard to ignore. The former West Ham United full-back missed football so much that he was willing to reach out to the amateur club Son Caleo, next door to his home on the island of Mallorca, to tell them he was ready to work. With the club’s juniors if that’s possible!
This has already happened and Scaloni took over the youth training at the amateur club in 2016. After one of the training sessions, Scaloni heard some reports indicating that Lionel Messi had decided to retire from international football with the Argentina national team. Scaloni couldn’t believe it, and posted a picture of his former teammate from the Copa America final with a desperate message saying: “This picture says it all… Don’t go, Leo.”
Six years after that, Scaloni is preparing to lead Argentina in the World Cup final against France, having managed so far to help Messi present his best levels ever in the World Cup, and after leading tango dancers to win the Copa America title in Brazil in 2021, This ended a lean 28-year period without winning any championships.
Since then, the Argentina national team has been dubbed ‘La Scaloneta’, in reference to the huge impact the young manager has had since taking charge. Now, the 44-year-old manager is the most popular man in the country.
The matter reached the point of renewing Scaloni’s contract with the Argentina national team until 2026, even before the World Cup competitions began. Marcelo Bielsa was the last Argentina coach to continue in his post after the World Cup in 2002.
In fact, this is a testament to Scaloni’s immense popularity, and there is blind faith from the entire squad and the fans in the young manager.
Rodrigo de Paul, Atletico Madrid midfielder, said: “If it was ten in the morning and Scaloni told us that we are at night, then this means that we are at night!”
Contrary to what was happening in the past, Messi and his companions are now looking into the locker room to find one of them who is training them. Now, Argentina’s players are aiming to win their first World Cup since 1986.
Former midfielder Lucho Gonzalez told the BBC: “We have a coaching staff that includes Scaloni and other former footballers such as Pablo Aimar, Roberto Ayala and Walter Samuel, who have tremendous experience in the Argentine shirt, know its value well, and are able to achieve this achievement.”
“And you can see very clearly that we have a group of players, who work happily when they come together. We also have the best player in the world, but the team makes him feel good and he doesn’t depend on him alone, which is very important.”
“He’s going to the MotoGP World Cup, not the FIFA World Cup”
Scaloni’s popularity skyrocketed in Argentina in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but no one could have guessed it when the man from the small village of Bogato was initially appointed as caretaker manager after Argentina’s disastrous run at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Criticism of Scaloni was so severe that the legend Diego Maradona said at the time that the only World Cup Scaloni could compete in was the Motorcycle World Cup, not football.
Scaloni listened to all of this, but kept his cool and modesty and preferred not to respond. Scaloni could not argue too much about his lack of experience, given that all his coaching experience consisted of working as an assistant to Jorge Sampaoli at Sevilla and then as an assistant with him with the national team in Russia. Just two years ago, Scaloni was still coaching the kids at his neighborhood club!
Lucho recalls what happened, saying: “We went together to the 2006 World Cup, but despite his exceptional career, I did not imagine that he would succeed as a coach in this way. Naturally, he was questioned at first, as the media did not know much about his capabilities, But it turned out to be a very smart move on the part of the Argentine Football Association.
“I think time has shown that if you don’t focus too much on the early results, things will work. And it did,” he adds.
There are no separate tables at La Scaloneta.
The feeling in Argentina is that La Scaloneta is very collaborative and collegial, something that has happened and developed over several years. When Leandro Paredes, the Juventus midfielder, celebrated his birthday in the Spanish city of Ibiza last summer, 13 Argentina players traveled to celebrate with him.
Scaloni adheres to a firm rule in the Argentine national team camp, which is that all players must sit at the same table so that they can talk to each other and look into each other’s eyes.
So it’s no wonder that this is the first time since 2006 that Argentines really believe they can win the World Cup. This belief did not change even after the sudden defeat by Saudi Arabia.
“Normally it doesn’t matter how you get to these championships, but it’s clear that reaching these championships as one of the strongest contenders for the title in such a great atmosphere excites and excites the fans,” says Lucho.
And he adds, “It is an exceptional World Cup, as it is our first without Maradona, whom all Argentines loved – especially me – but whose spirit will always be with us in such moments. But I have no doubt that he supports us from above.”