It is 10 years since an Argentina team boasting the burgeoning talents of Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, Angel Di María and Javier Mascherano beat Nigeria 1-0 in the 2008 Olympic final in Beijing.
Another glorious age beckoned for a football-obsessed country, excitement and expectation around what a golden generation might achieve abounded.
Yet the subsequent decade has not been a story of success and silverware but an agonising tale of crushed dreams and consecutive disappointments that could, with eerie symmetry, reach a nadir against none other than Nigeria in St Petersburg this evening.
Argentina must win to stand any chance of progressing to the last 16 and, even then, their fate will be tied to the outcome of Iceland’s game with Group D leaders, Croatia, who subjected the Albiceleste to one of their worst humiliations in a one-sided 3-0 defeat last Thursday.
The joy and anticipation felt in China has slowly and painfully dissipated to the point where the mood now is more in keeping with the mutinous air that poisoned France’s 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa.
Raymond Domenech’s decision to send Nicolas Anelka home for an expletive-strewn tirade at the coach led to the French squad boycotting training but, while Argentina have not sunk to those levels, the players’ faith in Jorge Sampaoli has waned to the point that, like Domenech, the manager goes into his country’s final group game in lame duck territory.
Hysteria has even taken hold. There have, for example, been surreal claims that a series of leaked Whatsapp recordings, including those between Diego Simeone, Atlético Madrid’s Argentine coach, and assistant German Burgos, reputedly decrying the “anarchy” that has gripped the national team, are the work of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad.
Argentina cancelled a friendly in Jerusalem on the eve of the tournament and there are wholly unsubstantiated claims that Israel is getting its own back by exposing the private thoughts of prominent Argentine football figures.
The closest Argentina have here to an Anelka figure is Sergio Agüero, who could be dropped against Nigeria as punishment for his fleeting impertinence in the wake of the Croatia debacle when he did little to hide his disgust at Sampaoli’s post-match claims that the team did not follow his plan.
“Let him say what he wants,” a wan and incredulous-looking Agüero retorted.
Mascherano has already shot down suggestions that the players held a meeting with Claudio Tapia in which they urged the president of the Argentine Football Association to sack Sampaoli.
But if Argentina do pull off a dramatic rescue act at the St-Petersburg Stadium to crowbar their way into the knockout stages, it is likely to have less to do with Sampaoli, whose tactics and selections have been muddled at best, chaotic at worst, than the obvious talent they do possess belatedly winning out.
Sampaoli, for what it is worth, was still talking like a man in charge last night and confirmed there would be changes without offering any clues as to what they would be.
Franco Armani, effectively the third-choice goalkeeper after Willy Caballero and Sergio Romero, who was ruled out of the tournament through injury, could come in for Cabellero, whose mistake gifted Croatia their first goal.
“I hope the changes we make will generate the strength and energy we need to progress,” Sampaoli said. “I think this will be the day Argentina show the level of individual and collective quality we need to qualify.”
It was a message echoed by the country’s former coach, Marcelo Bielsa, during his unveiling as Leeds United manager yesterday but no one can say with any certainty what sort of Argentina will turn up.
Much will again hinge on the performance of Messi, who has seldom looked so ineffectual, lost and beaten as he was against Croatia but whom Argentina will now hope can stage the sort of salvage operation he managed in their final qualifying game against Ecuador. A hat-trick at high altitude in Quito showcased Messi at his shimmering best but there will have to be a dramatic transformation in the Barcelona forward’s form and mindset, not to mention the team’s collective set-up, for Argentina to prevail.
Di Maria scored the only goal in that Olympic final victory over Nigeria, when he raced on to Messi’s pass in behind Olubayo Adefemi and lifted the ball over the goalkeeper to score.
Listening to the Paris St-Germain winger talk so animatedly about that goal, that game, that tournament in an interview, published yesterday, with The Players’ Tribune served only to highlight how out of step Messi and Argentina have been in Russia.
“That tournament gave me the opportunity to play with Leo, the extraterrestrial, the genius,” Di María said. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football. All I had to do was run into space. I would start running, and the ball would arrive at my feet. Like magic.”
There has been no magic, no fun from Messi or Argentina at this World Cup and the player many consider to be the greatest of all time has looked resolutely normal, not other-worldly.
Since 2008, the Argentina of Messi, Di María and Agüero have lost twice in the final of the Copa America and were beaten in the final of the World Cup in Brazil four years ago. Another final has seldom looked so far away, though. Argentina, and Messi, have it all to do. Fail and rock bottom awaits. TELEGRAPH