With the final games in World Cup Qualifying taking place in regions around the world this week, more teams are punching their ticket to Russia 2018. And on the flip side, more teams are in perilous positions where their hopes for making it to the world’s biggest sporting event are hanging on by a thread.
Here in the USA, there’s been much consternation about the red, white, and blue doing the unthinkable and missing the World Cup. Their sputtering performances in the Hex have been uninspiring to say the least, but given the extremely forgiving nature of CONCACAF qualifying for the biggest nations in North America, the USA is still in a very good position to get through.
Take the plight of the USA and multiply the magnitude and intensity by 100 and that’s currently what must be happening at the home of the 2014 World Cup finalists Argentina. In case you haven’t been paying attention to South American qualifying through their marathon process, one of the most famous soccer countries in the world is in serious danger of missing the World Cup.
How big of a deal is this? After their dismal 0-0 draw against Peru on Thursday night, a broadcaster said on Argentina television, “Not going to the World Cup would be the biggest catastrophe in Argentina’s history.”
CONMEBOL’s qualifying is unique in that all the South American countries play one stage of qualifying in one group throughout the entire cycle. The top four teams qualify automatically with the fifth placed team faces off against New Zealand in the intercontinental playoffs.
With Brazil already qualified at the top of the group and Uruguay all but home with a huge goal difference advantage, there are currently five teams fighting for the two remaining automatic qualifying spots and playoff spot.
As it stands right now, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Colombia would go to the World Cup while Peru would make it to the playoff. On the outside looking in is Argentina. The final matchday coming up on October 10th actually works in Argentina’s favor. Chile has the unenviable task of playing Brazil in Sao Paulo. Peru and Colombia play one another in what could be an elimination game. Paraguay plays host to Venezuela, who is bottom of the group, and Argentina has to travel to Ecuador, who have also already been eliminated from contention.
While a win will be enough to get in and even a draw could find Argentina squeaking through, the truth is that it’s no guarantee given the way that they’ve played through the seventeen games of qualifying. Somehow, a country with the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Mauro Icardi, Paulo Dybala, Alejandro Gomez, and on and on and on have only managed just 16 goals in 17 games. That’s less than one goal per match! In five qualifiers in this calendar year, Argentina have two goals – one from Messi and one from an own goal. Argentina even moved this week’s match to the famous La Bombonera stadium, the home of Boca Juniors, and it still provided no lift whatsoever.
Argentina’s problems have been coming just as much off the field as they have on the field. First, Argentina threatened to pull out of the Copa America in 2016 with controversy plaguing the AFA. Messi called the federation a “disaster” in 2016 after flight problems. With one management crisis after another, FIFA had to finally step in and put the AFA under administration. To put Argentina’s federation issues in perspective, the vote to name a new president in 2015 ended in a 38-38 tie.
There were only supposed to be 75 votes.
In the latest major final loss against Chile, with Lionel Messi missing one of the penalties, it was especially soul-crazy. After the game, Messi was so distraught that he announced his retirement from international competition. And in the wake of Messi’s short retirement, over a half dozen of Argentina’s best players threatened to walk away as well.
Messi would of course return, but it is almost as if the psychological damage of so many close calls has already taken its toll. The heartbreak on the field recently has been excruciating. Runners up at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil on a late goal in extra time against Germany. Runners up after a penalty shootout loss against Chile in the 2015 Copa America tournament. And in 2016, an instant replay. Another penalty shootout loss to Chile.
Three major finals. Three losses. 360 minutes played. Zero goals.
Argentina are now on the verge of failing to qualify for the World Cup for just the second time in their history. The two-time World Cup winners are on a 20+ year trophy drought. And for the man who regard by many as one of the top five players of all-time, wearing the Argentina jersey has bounced back and forth between being a curse and being a burden.
While Messi has starred for Barcelona and smashed one record after another at the club level, his lack of trophies with Argentina is going to be part of his legacy, as harsh as it may seem. Some of the sport’s greatest memories are what the greatest in the world did at the World Cup like Pele and Maradona. And Messi’s contemporary rival Cristiano Ronaldo finally won a major trophy with Portugal at Euro 2016, putting an even more intense spotlight on Messi’s troubles.
It’s not overstating the situation to say that Argentina failing to qualify for Russia 2018 would be one of the biggest shocks in the history of international soccer. And it would be an unfortunate climax to Messi and Argentina’s recent plight.