With a year to go to the 2018 World Cup, Argentina have no room for error, and dream of hiring Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli now they have sacked Edgardo Bauza.
Sitting fifth in the South American table — outside the automatic qualifying spots — the two-time World Cup champions are looking for a coach to turn things around after the beleaguered Argentine Football Association fired Bauza on Monday.
But will Sampaoli be the one?
– Sampaoli the favorite — but… –
The timing looks perfect.
Sampaoli, who has coached Sevilla to a surprisingly successful season in La Liga, recently said he dreamed of coaching Lionel Messi.
The Barcelona superstar has also given his blessing to the 57-year-old coach — a must to get the top job.
The five-time World Player of the Year has vast influence at the AFA, where there has been a power vacuum at the top since longtime boss Julio Grondona died in 2014 after 35 years at the helm.
Like Messi — and Bauza — Sampaoli hails from Argentina’s Santa Fe province, a cradle of football talent.
He makes a credible candidate for the job. He could even finish the current season in Spain, since Argentina’s next official match is not until after the summer break.
In a coaching career that has taken him to Peru, Ecuador, Chile and now Europe, Sampaoli’s greatest success is his 2015 Copa America title for Chile — against Messi’s Argentina.
A student of legendary Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa, Sampaoli has an aggressive attacking style that would represent a clean break with the timid play of Bauza’s short reign.
The AFA already courted him in 2016, when it was seeking a replacement for Gerardo Martino after he quit. Sampaoli, who had just signed with Sevilla, said he had to decline, with regret.
– Plan B: Simeone? –
“Sampaoli remains the favorite to become the next coach of Argentina,” local sports daily Ole declared on its front page Tuesday.
But AFA chiefs “will also meet with (Diego) Simeone” of Atletico Madrid, it added.
New AFA boss Claudio Tapia will travel to Spain this week to meet with Sampaoli, Simeone and possibly other candidates.
Simeone, 46, has always voiced interest in coaching the national team, but suggested it would be later in his career. His current contract with Atletico runs until 2018, and he looks content to stay in Europe for now.
The next coach of Argentina will carry a massive weight on his shoulders: after coming heartbreakingly close to victory in the 2014 World Cup, this football-mad nation is demanding nothing less than the trophy in Russia.
But first, Argentina have to qualify — without Messi, who has been suspended for three matches for insulting an official.
– Bauza breakup story –
Bauza kicked off his tenure in August 2016 with a headline-grabbing success: he convinced Messi to come back after the frustrated phenom announced he was retiring from international play following Argentina’s loss to Chile in the Copa America finals.
But in eight months, he has coached the team to three wins, three losses and two draws — hardly the kind of success Argentines are used to.
Bauza’s fate was sealed by an embarrassing 2-0 loss to Bolivia and a leadership shake-up at the AFA, where Tapia was elected president on March 30.
Already under fire over Argentina’s lackluster play — which saw it lose the number one spot in FIFA’s world rankings to arch-rivals Brazil — Bauza appears to have lost the association’s trust.
“The team is playing badly. Everyone knows that,” Tapia said last week.
He is now off to Spain to seek Messi and company’s next coach — and, he hopes, a saviour of Argentina’s World Cup dreams.