Straight-faced Lionel Scaloni measures Dutch challenge

Published December 9, 2022
ARGENTINA captain Lionel Messi (second R) in action with team-mates at the Qatar University Training Site 3.—Reuters
ARGENTINA captain Lionel Messi (second R) in action with team-mates at the Qatar University Training Site 3.—Reuters

DOHA: It wasn’t long after Louis van Gaal and Memphis Depay had left one news conference hall bursting with smiles and laughter that Lionel Scaloni took to the podium in the one opposite to it to answer questions. The difference in mood between the two rooms was obvious; the latter much more tense.

Argentina have heaps of pressure on them to deliver World Cup glory for the first time since 1986; they might not get the chance again four years from now when their talisman Lionel Messi would be 39. In an era of enhanced longevity, Messi might still be playing by the time the 2026 World Cup comes around but perhaps he would not be as effective as he still is. Coach Scaloni is mindful of this fact and perhaps that’s built the pressure that is pretty apparent.

“We’ve had an intense last few days,” Scaloni, straight-faced throughout, told reporters on the eve of Argentina’s quarter-final clash with the Netherlands on Thursday. “We’ve been planning on how we can cause damage to our opponents.” Asked if he had a plan to prevent Messi from being shackled by Netherlands’ marking, Scaloni said they will see “what happens on the pitch”. “We have thought about something different tomorrow,” he added. “We could implement some modifications [in our strategy] from the technical side. We have it in our minds.”

Of course, no one is telling anyone anything. “It would be very foolish to reveal here the plan we have to stop Messi,” Scaloni’s Dutch counterpart Van Gaal told reporters as he aims to prolong his ambition of delivering a first World Cup title for the Netherlands.

Scaloni and Van Gaal are on the opposite sides of the age spectrum. The World Cup is the last tournament for the 71-year-old Van Gaal, who has won everything at club level while Scaloni, 44, is in his first head-coach role but has already secured an international title — a year ago at the Copa America.

Van Gaal is battling cancer as he leads Netherlands’ pursuit for glory. Fighting for his life is a bigger fight than anything else but Van Gaal is a serial winner and hasn’t been shy about speaking of his desire to win the World Cup in Qatar. But he’s also an embodiment of calm now.

His news conference, alongside Dutch forward Memphis Depay, had anecdotes from history but it was more about his evolution from being a fierce taskmaster to a jovial, smiling one now. “My vision has evolved but I’ve not changed. I have more patience now,” he said.

It was as if Van Gaal was taking swipes at the ball as questions came to him, most notably when the mention of Argentina winger Angel di Maria calling him as the worst manager he’d worked under during their time at Manchester United.

“During his time at United, there were a few personal issues which is why I believe he feels that way … but he’s one of the players who says that and usually it’s the other way round,” said Van Gaal, before turning to Depay. “Here’s another from the same time at United but we now kiss each other.”

As the press pack broke into laughter, Van Gaal added: “I would kiss him on the mouth, if he allows me.” As the laughter continued, Depay, giggling, said, “Not happening here, that’s for sure.”

It’s the kind of exchange that embodies the spirit in the Dutch camp right now: harmony, unity. That’s not to say that Argentina don’t have the same; a team unified behind Messi to win the title that’s eluded him. The closest he’s come to winning it was eight years ago in Brazil, beating Netherlands in the semi-final on their way to the final, where Germany denied Messi the glory he’s craved for long.

“Tomorrow’s game will be the crucial one,” said Scaloni. Argentina have looked good in moments at the tournament, ultimately reliant on Messi to pull them through, but the Dutch clash might well be the one that set the tone for them to end their 36-year wait.

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2022

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