Lionel Scaloni is just one win away from joining the pantheon of all-time Argentina coaching greats alongside former World Cup winners Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo.
Thrust into the hotseat on an interim basis in 2018 after Jorge Sampaoli’s tempestuous reign ended, Scaloni, 44, has made the job his own – leading the Albiceleste to the brink of a third World Cup crown.
The contrast between the fiery Sampaoli and understated Scaloni, Argentina’s assistant at the last World Cup, could not be more pronounced.
His appointment following a tumultuous last-16 exit in Russia was met with widespread criticism and disapproval from those who felt he lacked the necessary qualifications.
The late Diego Maradona, himself a former Argentina manager, offered a particularly withering assessment at the time, praising Scaloni’s character but telling newspaper Clarin: “He’s not even capable of directing traffic.”
Scaloni had no previous experience as a head coach, but he was only supposed to be in charge for two months while the federation searched for Sampaoli’s successor.
He inherited a squad scarred by a series of near-misses – the 2014 World Cup final defeat was followed by back-to-back Copa America final losses to Chile on penalties in 2015 and 2016.
Scaloni’s most immediate concern was the future of Lionel Messi, who briefly retired from international duty in 2016 and was disillusioned by Argentina’s 2018 World Cup flop.
But the superstar forward was impressed by Scaloni’s vision for the team – as well as the presence of his idol Pablo Aimar on the coaching staff, along with former international teammates Roberto Ayala and Walter Samuel.
The Argentine coach is shaping a side in his own image, with 19 of the 26 players in his squad in Qatar playing at their first World Cup.
“He helped discover players like (Nahuel) Molina, Cristian Romero, Lisandro Martinez and (Alexis) Mac Allister, who have given the team an identity and, above all, given Leo (Messi) playing options he didn’t have at the last World Cup,” Jorge Burruchaga, scorer of the winning goal in the 1986 final, told AFP.
Argentina will be appearing in their sixth World Cup final against France, but Scaloni is quick to downplay comparisons with the country’s finest coaches of the past, including Menotti, Bilardo and Alejandro Sabella, who led them to the 2014 final.
“I can’t compare myself with other coaches,” he said.
“It fills me with pride to get to the final and represent the national team. But I can’t put myself on the same level as them. I just feel privileged to be in the final.”
For many, Scaloni combines characteristics of Menotti’s tactical acumen and Bilardo’s pragmatism.
“The coaching staff are not full of hot air, they’re involved every day in learning more and more and they commit themselves to the players in a loyal way,” Menotti, now 84, told Radio Mitre after Argentina’s semi-final win over Croatia on Tuesday.
Scaloni led Argentina on a 36-match unbeaten run heading into the World Cup, the highlight of which was the 2021 Copa America triumph in Brazil, which ended a 28-year trophy drought.
A shock loss to Saudi Arabia in their tournament opener in Qatar prevented Argentina from equalling the world record of 37 games without defeat held by Italy.
Messi described that setback as a “heavy blow”, but Scaloni stuck to his guns while also making the necessary adjustments – bringing the energetic Julian Alvarez in to liven up the attack.
Scaloni called for calm and dispelled any worries, urging a sense of perspective.
“You have to have some common sense, it’s just a football match,” he said after the 2-1 loss. “It’s hard to make people understand that the sun will rise tomorrow, win or lose.”
Five straight wins have followed – and one more at Lusail Stadium would see Scaloni accomplish a feat neither Menotti or Bilardo could, by completing a Copa America and World Cup double.