“No one wanted to take charge of the national team,” Nicolás Tagliafico admits. It was summer 2018 and Argentina had just been eliminated early from the World Cup. They had fallen against eventual champions France, true, but they knew it was coming. “We had only just qualified, we had only just got out of the group, the rope was round our necks and although you always have faith as anything can happen, at some point we were going to get beaten,” the full-back says. “It was the end of an era.”
“So many things are wrong with Argentina that we don’t know what’s wrong,” Jorge Valdano wrote back then, citing a “crisis of talent”, a “lack of leadership”, “lost patience”: “not even a genius [Messi] can make up for so many failings,” problems of “such magnitude”. When Lionel Scaloni was appointed as interim manager, it was his first job as a head coach and an unenviable one. “He had guts,” Tagliafico says. Yet four years on, Argentina begin another World Cup among the favourites, Copa América winners and unbeaten in 36 games.
That’s 34 more than Scaloni was supposed to get. “It was like we were starting over from scratch and it wasn’t easy for any coach,” says Tagliafico, one of seven players remaining from 2018. “We knew Scaloni as [the] assistant. He was recently retired and closer to the players, in a kind of intermediate, neutral zone, a territory somewhere between players and coach. He had the guts to help. And that’s the key word: help.
“He knew he wasn’t going to be [permanent] coach. He would even say that to us. ‘I’m here to help identify people with the team again, help you grow.’ Expectation had fallen and we could start building without having to win, win, win, win. Things started to happen, to look nicer. A few more games, a few more, and he started to realise – we did too – that you didn’t need so much experience to be coach; what you needed was someone to help everyone pull together. So it started.”
There was, Tagliafico says, “a big trip-up” at the 2019 Copa América, Argentina beaten 2-0 by Brazil in the semi-final. But looking back on this four-year transformation that’s the moment he considers most important. It was also the last time they lost. “There was a new generation and an older one. We lost but learned, got to know each other, ourselves. We were growing. That’s where the federación stuck with the manager. Between 2019 and the next Copa América there were ups and downs but we felt something building. Fortunately, we also got the results that ensured nothing broke.
“You get to the next Copa América convinced. Everything’s in place. But if you lose, that could be that. Something could break. A relationship. Or maybe Leo decides to stop. Winning took a weight off. We hadn’t won anything in a long time. That released the pressure – although it also generates expectation. For players like Leo, [Ángel] Di María, who had reached finals and not won, it was something totally different. Emotionally it was the best thing that could have happened. When we returned with the cup, it was Covid times but the streets were packed, like the world was ending.”
Asked to explain why Argentina reacts as it does to football, he pauses. “Football changes our lives,” he says at the start of a long explanation, a social analysis. Then, at the end, he stops, laughs, and says: “Well, that and the fact that we’re all mad, obviously.”
Success brings pressure, Tagliafico admits, but he agrees that this is a team that has been liberated. “The Copa América, going so long without losing, means there is expectation,” he says, “but you know that’s for a reason.”
That reason is Messi? “Not just him,” the Lyon defender, 30, says. “Of course he’s the most important player, the plus, but we’ve built a very, very strong group. If you look, we’re not big names but we’re strong as a team, good off the pitch as well as on it – and sometimes that’s as important.”
For Messi, too, seemingly more at ease in the national team than ever, just as the nation seems to feel more at ease with him, embracing him like never before. “I feel that from the inside too, that he’s enjoying it more,” Tagliafico says. “Winning the Copa América liberated him but I felt it even before that. I could see he was comfortable, and that’s what we wanted: for him to have total freedom. Because when he’s free, enjoys it, we see the things he does.
“It’s hard to explain why. I think he started to realise the selección is not for ever, and that he has to enjoy it. Maybe being a father changes you, maybe he saw he had to play for his kids, not the people. I felt Leo always had that weight on his shoulders: ‘I have to win for Argentina.’ Fortunately, the Copa América gave him what he desired so much; he’s even calmer knowing he has that and luckily he still has this World Cup left – maybe more.
“Leo’s the best. Maybe we still don’t fully realise because we’re playing with him; maybe in 20 years I will. God willing, he can win the World Cup and end that myth that says he has to win it to be like Diego. What surprises you is the calmness, the humility: at times he can even seen shy, but he’s a normal person you can talk to about anything. Sometimes I think maybe he doesn’t know how big he is, what he generates in the world.
“It’s mad to think now there were people who criticised Leo. And why? Because he didn’t win a cup. They overlook him reaching four finals, which isn’t easy. He made it easy. But having not won, he got criticised. Now, that’s changed. Maybe we learned. We learned through taking the hits, the bad moments, how things really are, how hard it was. And the people who criticised him ended up regretting that. It was unthinkable, but we learn.
“We obviously won’t say we’re favourites,. There are teams that are very, very strong. Sometimes you lose, and it can be for some stupid reason. We don’t need to build that expectation: we need to focus on what we can do. We know Saudi Arabia have been training together for a long time, it’s the first day and we’re thinking about this game only. The best start to a World Cup is winning. And something I learned at the last World Cup is: don’t look ahead, following the path through. If you assume, it doesn’t happen.
“We’re in good shape, and we’ll be there with the big nations, but favourites? No. Feet on the ground. What has happened, happened: those unbeaten games, the Copa América. We arrive feeling strong, competitive. We have the desire, the confidence, and we know where we’ve come from.”