As jubilant Argentina players danced and partied on the pitch at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday, the camera momentarily focused on Lionel Messi walking towards Lionel Scaloni and embracing him in a warm, tight hug. The drama-soaked, delirious ensemble of the summit-conquerors and their family members soon surrounded them, urging Messi — smiling, relieved and liberated — to join them in the celebrations. Their No. 10 and inspiration walked back towards them, drawing all the attention as the frame of Scaloni receded in the background, with his own fairy tale.
Argentina’s march to the World Cup triumph in Qatar has been invariably and unflinchingly Messi-centric. The story of the other Lionel in all this may have often taken a back seat but is fundamental to its value and validity.
Like a master prompter behindthe curtain, he ensured that the dramatis personae stayed true to a perfect script till the end. They stumbled, they suffered but at the end it was a triumph of determination and discipline — the quintessential tale of ‘La Scaloneta’.
Scaloni’s Midas touch-blessed journey began, more by accident than design, from the embers of La Albiceleste’s debacle in Russia four years ago. Coach Jorge Sampaoli stepped down after Argentina’s another failed shot at glory and the Argentina football association (AFA) began searching for a suitable candidate to succeed him.
Scaloni — who was in charge of Argentina’s under-17 side at the time and went to Russia as a member of Sampaoli’s coaching staff — came into the picture, out of the blue. A caretaker appointment as big names like Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone decided to stay back in Europe with their club commitments.
Scaloni’s journey could date further back to two decades when he, Pablo Aimar and Walter Samuel came together to help Jose Pekerman’s Argentina lift the Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia in 1997. Known for his tactical nous and focus on youth, Pekerman has shaped Scaloni’s career since.
TOI’s FIFA World Cup 2022 XI
<p>Here is TOI’s FIFA World Cup 2022 XI which ended in Lionel Messi leading Argentina to glory, scoring twice against France in one of the all-time great finals.</p>
A defensive player, Scaloni emerged from Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario — just like Messi. Their paths as players crossed for the first time when then Pekerman picked Scaloni for his 2006 World Cup-bound squad. Scaloni made Argentina’s starting XI in the round-of-16 clash against Mexico in which a young Messi came on as an 84th minute substitute. As a coach, Scaloni inherited a side still reeling under the disappointment of losing three finals of major tournaments — the World Cup in 2014 and Copa America in 2015 and 2016. The debacle in Russia made his job more complicated.
When Messi decided to hang up his boots after losing the 2016 Copa America final to Chile, Scaloni — managing an amateur club in Spain at the time — sent out an emotional message: “No te vayas Leo” (Don’t go, Leo).
Thus began the bonhomie between two Lionels and along with it ‘La Scaloneta’ two years later, when Messi finally buried the ghost of ‘the final’ by winning the Copa America in 2021.