Even if Argentina, with a team rife with talent, stumbles against Spain in the group stage of the World Cup in June, the tournament will mark a significant change in the country’s soccer fortunes.
This is because since Argentina’s last World Cup, in 2014, fewer than half of its top players have been able to make regular starts for their club teams.
It is an obvious fact that more Argentina players are attracting offers from wealthier clubs elsewhere: Alexis Sanchez, recently purchased by Manchester United, boasts a salary that would allow a typical Argentine player to earn far more in his current club.
What is more surprising is that as Barcelona, Barcelona, Barcelona and others have struggled financially in the Spanish league, Argentina players are becoming increasingly costly to secure. The rumblings that the “talent drain” may have become too large an issue should worry all those paying attention.
During the period Argentina’s best players – Messi, Messi, Messi – have played for their club teams, less than half of the country’s top players have started matches for their national side.
Already seen as a once-in-a-generation player, Lionel Messi is one of the stars who regularly excelled for both club and country in recent years. In 2015 he averaged the highest number of passes in Europe’s top five leagues (1,933 per club game) and in 2018 has averaged more than 1,200 passes per game.
For all of the opposition sides on the road to Russia, they have faced a swarm of the best players in the world. Argentina look set to become the first team from the home continent to compete in two World Cups in the same calendar year.
The difference is an erosion of talent in the national team. Fewer Argentine players can confidently start matches for their clubs. Only four such players turned out for the national side last summer, out of 15. Messi was unable to take the place of a player dismissed before the World Cup when he became a father. The qualifying campaign in 2016, not surprisingly, saw Argentina disappoint. As happened in 2016, this year they took to the road seeking qualification with a youth team.
If that was a bitter pill to swallow, it will certainly be not until Argentina matches their previous best World Cup result of semi-finalist in 1990. Messi will be 32 by then, while world class defenders Sergio Ramos and Dani Alves are now 31.
The disappointing recent history — not just in the tournaments themselves, but in world competitions as a whole — has made the task harder for South American teams. The continent still produces outstanding players, but so far none are famous enough to match Messi or Ronaldo. Brazil, the quarterfinalists in 2006 and 2010, have departed early in both tournaments.
Yet, there is reason for optimism. Not only has Argentina finally scored enough goals to win at least one World Cup game, they have brought in the team’s best player, Ever Banega, to be part of a change of direction.