Jorge Sampaoli gave a glowing personal tribute to Lionel Messi, even after his star player had seemingly usurped him in managing the Argentina team.
Messi gave the team-talk just before the start of the second half in St Petersburg, and when the game ended and Argentina had won, Messi was leading the celebrations while Sampaoli was nowhere to be seen. This after the team had played in a 4-3-3 system that put Messi back in his best role unlike the dysfunctional 3-4-3 from their last game.
Sampaoli’s comments pointed to the unique relationship between the two, one where the coach is essentially powerless, and has to talk up the best player as if he were a semi-religious figure. Even in victory, Sampaoli looked devoid of any managerial authority.
“Every time Messi plays, he shows he’s a fantastic player, above everyone else,” Sampaoli said. “He needs support from his team-mates, only then will he be able to play at his best like he did today.”
Messi had been criticised for not showing enough emotion in the Croatia defeat, and looking anxious, distracted and inscrutable. But tonight Sampaoli insisted that Messi is in fact more emotional than anyone might realise. “The most important thing for Leo is his human side,” he said.
“His human side is amazing. He feels, he cries, he suffers, he is happy when Argentina win. It is very important to share those feelings with the rest of the world. I know him, I have seen him happy, sad, in crisis times, in positive times. People say that he doesn’t enjoy playing for Argentina, but he suffers like the rest of the fans. That makes him even greater.”
Sampaoli and Messi both said how nervous Argentina had been in the second half, and how relieved they were when Marcos Rojo won the game. But Sampaoli said how pleased he was when Messi briefly shared the moment of victory with him.
“When Leo came and hugged me, I felt very proud and happy,” Sampaoli said. “He knows I am very passionate, passionate every single day. I have had the possibility to travel with him, and share many moments with him before the World Cup. He knows me, and he knows me well. He knows we have this common dream of coming to Russia, and doing something important for Argentina.”
But Sampaoli was confident that Argentina can build Messi a platform from here onwards. “A coach who has to train Leo, knows that everybody surrounding him needs to make him feel secure, and if we are able to create passes to Leo, he can create opportunities, because otherwise we suffer,” he said. “We have the best player in the world, and the rest of the players need to benefit from that. That is why I said that the match against Croatia was our problem, and not his problem.”
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