ONEwill aboard Scaloneta. It’s standing room only on the blue and white bus with Lionel Scaloni at the wheel, the next stop is the World Cup final: an entire country packed in, everyone right behind him, huddled together, singing. It wasn’t always like this, but as Muchachos, the song that has become the soundtrack for the last month, says it: Argentina, the country of Maradona and Messi that cried for so many years, has hope back. They have come a long way fast and so has he, bringing them back to Lusail on Sunday night.
Scaloni was in a hotel gym in Spain when the AFA called four years ago, his first senior team assembled that night as he walked along the beach with Pablo Aimar. There to train under-20s in L’Alcúdia, his might not have been the first number they called, but he answered. “No one wanted to take the national team,” admits Nicolás Tagliafico, among seven survivors from 2018.
Initially, he was appointed interim manager for two games. Two more followed, then two more: “There was no time to find a replacement,” he admits. He had just seven caps, recently turned 40, and no experience. “He’s a great kid, but he can’t even direct traffic. How can you give the national team to Scaloni? Are we all mad?” Diego Maradona complained. “Eat one asado, fine, but coaching a national team?! It’s way too big for you, like Minguito Tinguitella wearing Gordo Porcel’s suit.” Porcel and Tinguitella are a comedy duo, an Argentine Laurel and Hardy if you will, and Porcel is the fat one.
How things change. Maradona was not alone in doubting, and that the spell took two games at a time was not exactly a ringing recommendation, but a connection was built, an identification: a “chemistry” in Scaloni’s words. The national team was about to become Scaloneta – his national team. A metaphor – it could be a ship he was leading as well as a bus – this was a journey where more and more passengers were getting on board. And while Scaloni doesn’t like the title, preferring to point the finger at his players, by the time they beat Ecuador in the 2021 Copa América quarter-finals, it had gained momentum that felt irreversible.
It is now. Long after the semi-final in Qatar, Scaloni sat in the stands with his wife, Elisa, and two sons, Ian and Noah, the few fans left inside serenading him. He insisted that he could not be compared to Menotti, Bilardo or Sabella, but what he could yet achieve could be even greater. The sun will rise tomorrow, he likes to say, and the boy has it. At 44, in his first senior managerial job, he has taken Argentina from crisis to a Copa América, their first trophy in 28 years, to the Finalissima victory, a 36-game unbeaten run and now a World Cup final.
Nobody expected this. Well, almost none. If Scaloni is an unexpected hero, those who know him saw something. The WC’s youngest coach has not come from nowhere. It’s there in the personality and preparation. A simplicity, a directness about him that friends associate with one chacarero culture: an agricultural lifestyle. Which he actually also does. When you talk to those who worked with him, the same words keep repeating: passionate, determined, funny, competitive. An extrovert, he likes to talk. Empathy also continues to emerge. Spend time with him and he’s surprisingly, well, normal.
“It’s hard for me to talk about him because we’re good friends, but when they chose him, I was happy. Many had their doubts, but he has the perfect mix. He is very Argentine but played in Europe: he has Spain’s possession and touch, the tactics of Italy, says Leo Franco, who met Scaloni at 18, a teammate with Argentina U20s and Mallorca, and was his classmate on a coach. course.
“I’ve seen his sessions and he has an incredible capacity to lead, but afterwards he sits and talks to players. It’s amazing how natural he is. In Argentina we are very, very, very result-oriented and until he won the Copa América his abilities were perhaps not as visible, but I was always convinced.”
The then Uruguay manager, Óscar “Maestro” Tabárez, pulled Scaloni aside in his first year and told him to ignore those who said he had no experience: Scaloni had “lived”, he said. Raised in Pujato, where his family worked in the countryside, Scaloni says there was always a leader inside, a collective conscience that his colleagues quickly saw. “He was focused on the group, whether he played 90 minutes or two,” recalls Slavisa Jokanovic, a team-mate in Scaloni’s first European season. Gregorio Manzano, his coach in Mallorca, says: “He was competitive, generous and empathetic. You could tell by the attention he gave that it wasn’t just playing he enjoyed; that was the game.”
Scaloni took his first coaching badges in Rome in 2011. A league and cup winner at Deportivo, he felt they should have won more and found in Italy the tactical depth he missed at A Coruña. If he regretted it, it didn’t work before, but Spain had stayed at home, far from the noise of Argentina. He coached a Mallorcan children’s team before joining Jorge Sampaoli’s staff at Sevilla, then the national team, and obtained his Fifa professional license with the Spanish Federation, new selection trainer Luis de la Fuente among the teachers.
At Las Rozas, Scaloni stood out. If anyone predicted his success, it’s the class of 2018. “He was destined to be a coach. He loves football. The teachers put a topic on the table for debate and he had a good ability to argue his case, says Pablo Orbaiz, a former Spanish international who now works in the Osasuna academy. “He has a gift, something special,” says Ayoze García, another classmate and former teammate. “He is a leader. As a player, he wanted to be close to the coach and take it in. On the field, he had a supremacy. He wanted to come up with new ideas. You’d think “that’s mad” and then, “That might actually work.” In practice it did.”
Gica Craioveanu was there too. “There were two on the course that I would absolutely have bet on making it: him and [current Rayo Vallecano coach] Andoni Iraola,” he says, then hangs up. “And he owes me dinner. He said he liked three centre-backs, I said [a back] four, and I see he has used it in the World Cup.”
“I was sure he would train,” Iraola agrees, laughing. “He was so competitive, determined. After class, some would stay to play football tennis. And if he had to cheat to beat you, he would cheat. And he always ended up winning. When I look at Argentina, I see his character. There was theory, practical sessions, but the best were the debates, the arguments. And Scaloni was always in the middle.”
There is a richness in that exchange of ideas, in the value of listening, of finding common solutions, which is reflected in Scaloni’s choice of backroom staff: Aimar, Walter Samuel and Roberto Ayala. Those names say something about Scaloni’s humility and intelligence, classmates insist. There is a connection with players and a depth of tactical analysis as well. That capacity has perhaps been overlooked although it has played out clearly, Argentina shifting through footballers and formations, demonstrating a fundamental flexibility. “We have a large technical staff who leave nothing to chance. What they tell you before every game happens, says Lionel Messi.
“Tactically, he is incredible: he learned to structure his ideas, especially in Italy,” says Franco. “I could see it: there’s a coach here. Someone said, ‘He has no style.’ They laughed, dismissively. Too many people don’t see that football is developing, but he is. The two finalists are not coaches who say: ‘I have a system I won’t change.’ You must control all aspects. Do you need five in the back? Five. Do you need four? Four. Do you need the ball? Have it. If you have to kick it into the stands, kick it. Five forwards? Five points. He sees it.”
“Scaloni has probably been the World Cup’s most interventionist coach,” says Iraola. “He’s worked with different systems so they can shift during games. In terms of individual talent, there’s probably five or six teams a level above them, but he’s engineered a team.”
It has meant a structure that serves Messi and is served by Messi. Simple? As his classmates analyze the captain’s role, it is clear that it is not. Meanwhile, a potential candidate for Argentina coach admits privately that the Messi issue is one reason why some did not want the job. In short, make it work – “and which Messi are we talking about?” a 2018 graduate note – is not so easy. As Orbaiz says: “Messi has had many coaches and they have not been able to do this. Scaloni has.”
He adds: “Scaloni had the courage to take Argentina and his group management, the union he has built – it’s brutal; what he has done, brutal. The demands are so, so great: very few people understand the pressure he has been under, and he deserves enormous credit.”
So now here comes Scaloneta, arrives at the finale. “It all comes back to the same thing: When Leo has a goal, he meets it,” says Franco. “Seeing him get to the final just makes me so happy for him and his family – because when you’re a coach, it’s not just you who suffers. And when it matters Scalonetathere is something very important: he has given back to the Argentines their passion for the shirt.