England fans be thankful, the dramatic fall of Argentina shows how a nation has turned its back on its national team

Millions turned off Argentina's 3-0 defeat by Brazil and the Lionel Messi-led media blackout is the latest reason behind why a football-mad nation has turned its back on the national team

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The Independent Football

Where English football is concerned, it’s the year we’ll remember for Iceland, the ‘Huh’, and the ignominy of that night in Nice, though before we reach too many conclusions about the national team’s irrelevance, consider the TV ratings. That match on the French Riviera remains the most watched programme of 2016, from which only 298 people tuned out.

Then compare the Argentinian viewing public last week, during the 3-0 defeat to Brazil which has left qualification for the 2018 World Cup looking like a stretch. At half time, with their team trailing 2-0, millions in that football obsessed country switched channels to watch the last episode of a Brazilian mini-series called ‘Moses and the Ten Plagues.’

Though the 3-0 win over Colombia in Buenos Aires on Tuesday improved the picture slightly, the night ended with the farcical spectacle of the entire team standing, po-faced and arms folded, on a platform behind Lionel Messi, as he declared through a microphone that, because of a radio report that Ezequiel Lavezzi had smoked marijuana – which the player denies – “we have decided not to speak any more with the press. Getting into someone’s personal space is very grave.”

England are certainly well ahead of this nation in the popularity stakes. Though there’s something in the characteristic swagger of the Albiceleste which makes other South Americans always desperate to beat them, it’s far more bitter than sweet between the players and their public, too. The mass overseas exodus of the best talent lies at the heart of it. “When the national team is playing we feel like a First World country,” says La Nacion’s distinguished football columnist Ezequiel Fernandez Moores. “Then they go off to play for their clubs and leave us alone. We need them but when they leave we feel they are traitors.”

This is nothing new. Even when Diego Maradona was punching the ball into Peter Shilton’s net at the Estadio Azteca on the way to World Cup victory in 1986, most of the players were playing their club football outside of Argentina, though the nation is now engulfed by that English disease of yearning for days when the sun never set on their success.

It’s 23 years since they last lifted a trophy – the 1993 Copa America – and losing in finals is their equivalent to our runners-up position in penalty shoot-outs. Since Mexico ’86, the side have been defeated in the finals of two World Cup and three Copa Americas. The FA would have certainly taken that record but for the Argentinians, an innate braggadocio comes into play. Everyone quotes the legendary Carlos Bilardo, coach of that 1986 team. ”Football is winning and nothing else,” he said.

The introspection is worse because this nation’s production line of players is so phenomenal, while Bilardo, Cesar Luis Menotti, Marcello Bielsa, Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino have made coaching a revered art form. As Jonathan Wilson puts it in the conclusion to his powerful new history of the Argentinian football nation ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, no side has ever produced such success at Under-20 World Cup level – five tournament victories in 12 years - and yet failed to win a trophy at senior level.

The burden of history has weighed down the shirt, with everyone currently analysing what is wrong with the Argentinian football psyche. “We are one of those Sigmund Freud countries - like you in England,” says Fernandez Moores. “It is a psychological affliction now. You can see that in the players’ faces.”

Before Messi decided that the players would not be talking, he surprised Argentinians by declaring, “We need to get out of this s***,” after the defeat to Brazil. The nation is not accustomed to such phraseology from its celebrities. Javier Mascherano, who looked even more beaten down that night, has been in the throes of one of his worst runs of form in the national team. His catastrophic backpass gifted Peru an equalising goal last month.

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Argentina are in danger of not qualifying for the World Cup (Getty)

The introspective search for an explanation for all this within the nation’s domestic game is just like England’s. The administration and structures are certainly chaotic, with the Argentina FA currently under emergency Fifa control. Wilson writes that 1,869 Argentinians were playing professionally abroad last year. Who can blame them for leaving Third World club standards behind?

Messi’s media boycott has been received philosophically. “It’s Messi. He knows that journalists need him and he doesn’t need journalists,” says Fernandez Moores. But the same may not apply to the entire squad. Argentina, still outside of the qualification places, now face games against Chile and in La Paz, Bolivia, whose high altitude grounds are fiendishly difficult to get results from.

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Messi told the media on Tuesday that the team would no longer speak to the media (Reuters)

There is no sense of collective strength, despite Tuesday’s much needed win. “It was Messi FC 3 Colombia 0. Argentina remains in darkness,” says one paper. England’s next opponents? Lithuania and Scotland. Be thankful for small mercies.

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