Argentina made the very first World Cup final in 1930 and was also very, very good at the earlier Copa America’s, winning twelve times between 1921 and 1959. While their South American counterparts won five of the first nine World Cups, the Argentines had to wait until 1978 to finally be crowned champions of the world. Then they did it again in 1986.
The latter is often accredited to the heroics of Diego Maradona, a stand-out moment for both country and player that set the bar for successors. Enter a certain Lionel Messi, possibly the best to ever play the game, still waiting for his World Cup success. This time at least they had little trouble, qualifying with little drama and games to spare.
How do they play?
For most, Messi and Argentina are still interchangeable, but these days they have a solid core and enough depth to support the 35-year-old living legend. Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez chipped in with seven goals in qualifying, equalling Messi, and they allowed just eight goals in 17 games, of which three were penalties.
Argentina feels good in possession, often playing on the ground and through the middle – in qualifying, they were dead last in crosses, aerial duels, and long passes, but also first in dribbles, an indication of their individual capabilities. If they succeed, winning Copa America last year will be seen as a turning point.
Why they can win?
Messi. For all his success at club level, he hadn’t lifted a trophy with the national team after the 2008 Olympics until being crowned South American champions last July. All of his earlier failures were forgiven, a weight off his shoulders after three Copa America finals and a World Cup final were lost. Now they have both the talent and the know-how; from here on, the little things matter.
Why they can lose?
Messi. If times are tough, everyone will still look to the old warhorse for inspiration, but he probably can’t do it alone. What if he is having a bad day? What if things don’t click for some reason? Some teams are well-suited to take down the Argentines, who are maybe a bit one-sided and susceptible to quick counter-attacks. In a one-off game, some defensive sides might have the edge.
The leading stars
Argentina is unbeaten in 35 games, a series dating back to the 2019 Copa America semi-finals, and just two short of Italy’s all-time record. When Messi has been unavailable or out of form, 25-year-old Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez has been carrying the torch and scoring important goals. Four years ago, he was left at home, so he’ll be playing with a chip on his shoulder and has only gotten better.
The fresh faces
Head coach Lionel Scaloni has to consider starting 24-year-old Manchester United center-back Lisandro Martinez, who transferred from Ajax Amsterdam in the summer. So far, he has been a revelation for United, and based on recent form, Scaloni can’t afford to overlook him for more experienced associates. Lisandro can make a difference.