Former Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli has opened up about La Albiceleste’s poor World Cup 2018 campaign and what starman Lionel Messi went through emotionally.
The two-time World Cup winners were dumped out of the tournament by France in the last-16, with captain and talisman Messi registering just a single goal in the showpiece (against Nigeria) and generally looking underwhelmed, working under Sampaoli’s much criticised tactics.
Unsurprisingly, the former Sevilla boss was axed after the event in Russia, and while a permanent replacement has not yet been found, Messi is still on a break from international football and not set to return until next year, according to reports.
However, Sampaoli has nothing but praise for Messi – with the 58-year-old hailing the Barcelona star’s greatness.
“It was amazing, especially to see him so committed and suffering a lot when he didn’t win. The best player in history was very committed. Leo suffered like none other and it hurt him as if he had not been able to succeed in a group,” he said in an interview published by Marca.
“Having the best in the world in your team forces you to a maximum demand and the rest must be at his height. But sometimes you can, and sometimes you cannot. In that fight we were every day. Having Leo, forces you to have no margin for error when it comes to winning.”
Sampaoli – who is now unattached – believes Argentina can go on to win the Copa America in Brazil next summer and challenge for the next World Cup in 2022, with Messi at their disposal.
“Of course yes (Argentina can win with Messi), but this needs a process, for everything that has happened up to now and you don’t break the process; you correct it.
“For the next World Cup or Copa America you need organisation, unlimited confidence and knowing that everything requires a process. If you don’t win the Copa America, you have to keep the process, not break it. Enough of this madness that if you do not ‘win’, ‘you’ are a loser. It’s not like that: if you believe, you can win even later. But you have to believe.”
The side were among the pre-tournament favourites, but struggled to get out of their group before falling to France in the Round of 16.
“The best player in the world was devoted” to the Argentina cause, Sampaoli told Marca.
The former Sevilla manager pointed out the difference between the environment Messi has at his club, which enables him to thrive, and the one the Argentina talisman faces within the national setup.
“At his club (Barcelona) he has great stability. But when he comes to the national team a collective hysteria takes over and it’s like we’re expected to win.
“This is not possible. If we don’t win, it’s he who cops all the criticism. So you can’t play, and you can’t enjoy it.”
“The weight of expectation on this team was too heavy. We all felt pushed by the obligation to win, which meant it was difficult for us to express our talents.
“It was difficult to work in those conditions because there was only one available option: to be world champions.
“Putting that kind of obligation ahead of the match itself made everything much more complicated.”
Sampaoli also had words of advice for his successor in the Argentina hot seat, Lionel Scaloni: “We need to find a balance so that this obligation to win doesn’t generate even more anxiety.
“Every match (at the World Cup) was a sufferance.”
Meanwhile, Messi’s international future remains unclear. He made himself unavailable after the World Cup, missing Argentina’s friendlies last month as well as the upcoming international break, though he has not officially retired.
Diego Maradona has yet again slammed the Argentina national team set-up, saying the country’s football association is full of “traitors” and criticising midfielder Javier Mascherano as he continued his robust defence of talisman Lionel Messi.
Messi informed the Argentinian FA (AFA) that he would not be available for selection for the foreseeable future, missing the team’s friendlies in September and again not being named to the squad for the upcoming international break. However, he has not officially retired.
Maradona led La Albiceleste to their last World Cup win in 1986 and managed Messi and many more of today’s stars, including Mascherano, during a short stint that included the 2010 World Cup.
He believes Messi – his successor as the country’s great footballing hope – owes the national team no more, and should not come back for international duty again, after the criticism he has received for not winning a trophy with the national side during an otherwise decorated career.
“That’s why I am telling him not to come back and take all of the blame,” said Maradona of Messi.
“We will mourn him because there is no other player like him, but just as Messi falls, so does the AFA.
“It is very easy to say that Messi is to blame, but they are going to kill the kid.
“And this kills me because if there are comrades who really love Messi, they should have come out and defended him, not press silence.
“I was wrong about Mascherano, I thought he was a leader. Today, I have to say that Mascherano is not what I believed, but that mistake is totally mine, not his.”
The Argentina legend, who is now manager at Mexican side Dorados, also ruled out a return to the national team job.
“I won’t return,” said Maradona.
“I’m really looking forward to doing a lot of things here and in the national team there are a whole bunch of traitors, so I’m not going back.
“We wanted a new AFA and we got [Claudio] Tapia. I’m guilty in that as well. He came to ask for support and I said yes.
“He told me a lot of things and then did nothing, he did not call me anymore. That’s betrayal and I spit in the face of traitors.”