Lionel Scaloni: ‘When you play for Argentina, that grrr is always there’ | Argentina

‘The sun will come up tomorrow,” Lionel Scaloni says. The Argentina manager is talking about the “terrible burden of responsibility” he carried as a player, the weight he tries to free his footballers from now, when a moment comes to his mind. It happened in 2006, and you may remember it. He certainly does, the regret remaining even though it might have been the best mistake he ever made. Not destiny exactly and he couldn’t have known it then, but one of those events that somehow shape things, the ball as butterfly effect.

Seconds remained in the FA Cup final with West Ham on the verge of winning their first trophy in 26 years, only the fourth in their history, when it fell to Steven Gerrard and, Scaloni says, “the world came crashing down on me”. Liverpool’s captain hit an absurd shot and everything shifted. “I lost an FA Cup, it was partly my fault because I didn’t clear well, and life changed,” he recalls. “West Ham don’t want to sign me, I return to Spain. I wouldn’t have met my wife or had my kids.”

There might have been none of this, either: Argentina’s first title in 29 years, Lionel Messi finally lifting an international trophy, a 36-game unbeaten run, the longest in their history and one off a world record, and the hope of something greater. If that’s unexpected, and Scaloni admits “something strange happened with us”, all of it is. Including him: an unlikely hero and an unpretentious one. The man who took charge after failure and skilfully forged a group now among the World Cup favourites, a process he outlines with a clarity and normality which helps explain how he succeeded.

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He might not have carried on at all. “That night, after the FA Cup final, it was like I didn’t want to play football any more,” Scaloni says. Struggling physically and thus mentally too, he says “at 29, 30, it was half-over”. Those were “really screwed-up” years but he went on: Racing Santander, Lazio, Mallorca, Atalanta. “As a player I felt more blame than as coach, which is mad because the coach is the one paying for defeat,” he says.

He played the 2006 World Cup “practically on one leg”, describes the suffering in his one appearance against Mexico, his last cap, remembers his thigh muscle completely detaching, admiringly recalls the surgeon who could only use one arm, and winces at the injury recurring two years later, getting on a train from Rome to Bergamo having signed for Atalanta. “Incredible, all in the head. That burden again, that weight on your conscience. ‘What do I tell these people?’ We play Palermo four days later. At 2-0 up I say: ‘Mister, I have a yellow: take me off’. I didn’t say: ‘I’m broken.’ I couldn’t.”

All that accelerated a process that was already there, a transition towards who he always was, Scaloni believes. Somewhere he has the notes scribbled down over the years. “I fed on football,” he says. “I could watch football 24 hours. I was always close to the coach, discussing what worked. That ‘bug’ always bit me. Even as a kid, the best in my age group, I was never an egotist, always pulled the group together. But injury quickened that. I can’t play every game and think: ‘I have to do something.’

Lionel Scaloni and Lionel Messi
Lionel Scaloni is full of admiration for the way Lionel Messi handles himself despite all the constant attention he receives. Photograph: Ali Haider/EPA

“Something clicked in Italy. I went at 30 thinking I knew everything and found so much to learn. I did my first badge in 2011 despite not retiring until 2015. I would train at Formello, Lazio’s place, then cross to Trigoria, Roma’s place, for the coaching course.”

Scaloni was an analyst for Jorge Sampaoli at Sevilla then Argentina but had no head coach experience, only seven caps, and his appointment after Russia 2018 surprised. Diego Maradona even asked whether they were “mad”. Initially it was temporary yet as it turned out, of the past 12 coaching spells only one lasted as long and none achieved anything like this, doubts blown away – even if Scaloni insists he never felt imposter syndrome or any need to prove himself.

“We came for six games – actually two initially, Guatemala and Colombia. We were with the Under-20s when they called, in the hotel gym in Valencia with Pablo Aimar. I said: ‘I’m diving straight in; you with me?’ He didn’t hesitate. Some would think: ‘Madness of youth.’ Others: ‘You were brave.’ I didn’t think at all. We were walking along the beach drawing up the senior squad, taking the Under-20s the next day. All very mad. But the emotion, the excitement was enormous.

“When we played Uruguay, Maestro [Óscar] Tabárez pulled me aside: ‘Tell those who say you have no experience you had a lifetime of them in 20 years playing.’ I said thanks but didn’t really stop to think about that until later. Playing doesn’t give you the right to coach but it does help you manage certain moments, understand.”

Scaloni built an illustrious staff. Aimar – “worth his weight in gold; he’s calm while maybe I’m a bit impulsive”; boyhood friend Walter Samuel, whose parents used to pick him up en route to training; and Roberto Ayala, who “always has the right words.”

Together, they built a team Scaloni positions on both sides of Argentina’s football divide: César Menotti’s love of the ball, Carlos Bilardo’s fight. Scaloni talks gratefully of the “70, 80, maybe 90” players used as it all unfolded and outlines an evolution in style from something more direct to a team of “good feet”, explaining how Rodrigo De Paul and Leandro Paredes adapted. “If you insist on dying with your original idea, it won’t end well,” he says.

“But the most important thing is the head. They’re all good players so if they’re in a good place mentally, if you can remove any fears; that’s important. We came from two Copa América finals lost, a World Cup final lost. The feeling was, ‘We’re never going to win anything’, ‘We won’t win, won’t win, won’t win’. We told them that win or lose, the sun rises.”

He knew; that FA Cup still hurt. “Sorry, psychologists, but we do it ourselves. We talk to players about our experiences. We listen to them too. I read an Ancelotti interview about his players suggesting something different. He won it all and could have said: ‘No, we do what I say.’ But he listens. Playing an uncomfortable player is worse than him telling you he’s uncomfortable. You need players with you. You decide but it’s good to listen. I believe in that, always have. Fundamental. A footballer turns his back and … That was always true but now more than ever they’re the key to everything.”

That comes naturally to Scaloni, a product perhaps of his upbringing in Pujato, where his parents still live. Chacarero, they call it; a farmer’s lifestyle. “It’s a typical Argentinian small town: people work the land, look after animals, a very monotonous life,” he says. “Wake at 6am, go round the fields, check the cows are OK, there’s no bugs on the crops, in the sunflower, the wheat, go home, eat, siesta, go back, do it again. Maybe that’s there in how you relate to people: simple, nothing odd, telling it how it is. A right-back is a right-back not a withdrawn four.”

Scaloni’s team were relatable, a “national team belonging to everyone”, he says. “We did two games, then Germany, then Ecuador, then two with Mexico. Things went well. It’s also true that there wasn’t time for them to find a replacement – that’s a reality. So we continued until December: ‘OK, keep going.’ Results were good but it was more the air we breathed, something fresh, people coming together.”

And then came Lionel Messi. “He joined after six games. We did a video call with him and Aimar when we took over , explaining our plans, telling him the doors were open. We said: ‘We know maybe it’s better for you not to come yet.’ He was happy, especially because of Pablo, who’s his idol. He said: ‘When you want me, I’ll be there.’ We needed the group to be strong first. It’s not the same for a young lad to come and suddenly be sent to train with Leo. It’s difficult to explain what he generates in a group, just being there.”

Have you seen that before? “No, not even close,” Scaloni says. “I’ve played against the best, but like that, no. What he generates in teammates and opponents is beyond the normal. After six, seven, eight games, the group’s forming. Otamendi, Di María, who he already knew. De Paul joins, Lo Celso, Papu [Gómez], people who manage a group. When Leo joined, it was natural. And kids are more open now. At 18, I got called up. There was Crespo and all those and I was like …”

Scaloni feigns a terrified face. “And I liked to talk, eh! You kept a distance. Those were imposing guys. But now kids approach more easily. Leo approaches them too. There’s a legacy: his words stay with them. It was natural. Form the group, then he came. It worked. He’s the most down to earth of all.”

In what way? “In everything. If I walk down the road, I might get asked for an autograph: one, two, five … by the fifth, I’m not saying no, but.” Scaloni grimaces. “That’s once in a while. He’s every single day, every single holy day. It’s not fair that he can’t have a life like all of us. He goes into a dining room, everyone’s watching: cook, kit man, everyone. And that’s people who know him; imagine people who don’t – 365 days, 24 hours. He understands that. How many times did he raise his voice publicly in 20 years? I admire him, love him loads, it’s incredible how he handles that.

“By the time he came for the Venezuela game, we knew what we wanted. And when we signed permanently, we entered another phase. We didn’t win the 2019 Copa América but played well. In Argentina respecting a process is hard and we started as interims, without unconditional support, but something strange happened: we started to get that trust, through results, how we worked. People breathe football 24 hours and this team reached them; they identified with how we are. We found that chemistry between fans, directivos, players. That was key to continuing four years.

“In Brazil we lost [the 2019 Copa América semi-final]. Messi spoke out because he had to. People think Leo doesn’t speak but he’s a true Argentinian, it’s in his blood, the most pissed-off at losing. That day there were many reasons to be angry. People identified, appreciated we played well. At a different stage they could’ve said, ‘They lost, get rid of them all’, ‘The coach has to go’, but there was a connection.”

Argentina have not lost since. Defeat is never permanent, Scaloni says – nor, he adds, is victory – and two years later Argentina returned to win the Copa América at the Maracanã. At full time, the players dashed to Messi, slipping to his knees, sobbing. “Half the world would have run to hug him,” Scaloni says.

Lionel Messi celebrates with his teammates after winning the 2021 Copa América against Brazil at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro
Lionel Messi celebrates with his teammates after winning the 2021 Copa América against Brazil at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, their first trophy since 1993. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s spontaneous. The country needed that happiness – it had been a long time. Seeing Leo win pleased everyone, as much even as the selección. When Messi represents what he does for people, for teammates, knowing he had been denied for so long, that’s natural. That generation reached three finals, as if that was easy! People appreciate that now. But the Copa América removed a thorn from his side.”

The celebrations, the release was wild. “There was a fervour beyond the normal, too much,” Scaloni admits. “If you think you’re more than you are, you’re dead. Someone said: ‘You’re bigger than the president now.’ I said: ‘Nah, you’re wrong.’ Maybe this helps people but I’m just a football coach. If we win the Copa América and I say, ‘Now we’ll win the World Cup’, no. We walk the same line, win or lose. Maybe people aren’t used to this, maybe they say: ‘This guy’s mad.’ I’m normal; look at the people with me: we’re all like that.”

“We tell them they’re footballers, that’s all. Our word’s no more worthy than anyone’s. Winning doesn’t mean do whatever you want. It’s dangerous in Argentina to believe you’re bigger than you are. That’s not me trying to burst the bubble; it’s telling it how it is. We’re not invincible. Records are there to be broken. We’re playing well, won the Copa América but we can have a good tournament or a bad one.

“The World Cup is treacherous, the best team often doesn’t win. What matters is knowing what you want: that’s the path we’ve travelled these four years. After the final game before Qatar, which closed this cycle, the coaching staff talked. We compared that last game to our first and the feeling is the same.”

He stops, pulls a face. “When you play for Argentina, that grrr, those nerves, that adrenaline, is always there,” he says. “That never changes, whether it’s Guatemala or the World Cup.”

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