SOCHI, Russia, July 1 (Reuters) – Argentinian headlines may have been dominated by the enigma that is Lionel Messi, tactical turmoil in the team and the Messianic Maradona in the background – but all that is history now as elimination by France spells the end of an era for the two-time champions.
Argentina have not won a major international title since lifting the Copa America in 1993. They came closest with this squad in 2014, when they lost in the final of the last World Cup, and in the Copas America in 2015 and 2016.
Their elimination by France on Saturday in a thrilling 4-3 reverse – beaten by pace and youth as much as by skill or talent – will now surely lead to a changing of the guard.
Many of the Argentines who played in Russia are in their 30s, including Javier Mascherano, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Ever Banega, Nicolas Otamendi, Gabriel Mercado, Enzo Perez, Angel Di Maria and even Messi himself.
Mascherano announced his retirement after the game, and there must be questions marks over his team mates’ desire to continue with the transatlantic flights and massive pressure from home fans.
One of the biggest questions surrounds Messi. The Barcelona player retired from international football in 2016 but quickly reversed his decision. It would be no surprise if he finally called it a day.
Messi is one of the greatest players of the 21st century but he has yet to win a title with Argentina, losing all four of the finals he has played in, dating back to the 2007 Copa America in Venezuela.
That should not be a reflection on his outstanding skill, but Argentina’s repeated failure at the final hurdle is self-evident. Losing one final is unfortunate, losing three in four years is careless.
The Argentines, however, never looked anything like contenders this time around.
They labored to a 1-1 draw with Iceland in their opener, were crushed 3-0 by Croatia in their next game, and needed a late winner from full-back Marcos Rojo to secure a place in the last 16.
Messi, as so often happens, turned it on when he really had to, in that final group win over Nigeria.
But he looked subdued against France and could not find a way past the packed defences of Iceland and Croatia. His inability to score in the knock-out phase of any World Cup is a telling statistic.
Sampaoli is a successful coach, having won the Copa America with Chile in 2015, and he has vowed to continue in charge. He is aware of the age issue but convinced the future is in good hands.
“I am convinced that Argentine football has a crop of players coming through,” Sampaoli said, “and we need to back them up if we are to return to be one of the top sides.”