Argentina is regarded worldwide as one of the great powers in the production of soccer players. When a big European club signs an Argentine teenager, its fans tend to let their imagination fly. They know from experience that there’s usually a good chance that they got a star in the making.
Until 2009, the perception was backed by the results of the Albiceleste youth teams. Argentina dominated the world stage with ease. They had won the previous three U20 World Cups and the last two Olympic gold medals with their U23 team. That year, at age 22, Lionel Messi won his first Ballon d'Or. The future seemed to be written with golden letters.
However, thereafter, Argentine youth football has suffered a sudden and incredible collapse. From 2009 to date, the Albiceleste youth teams have been a complete disaster, with results unworthy of their tradition and the quality of their players.
In the past 6 years, except for a fourth place in the U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013, the Argentine national teams with an age limit have not advanced farther than the quarter-finals of their respective tournaments. Worse, in that period, they didn’t qualify to the 2012 Summer Olympics and the U20 World Cups Egypt 2009 and Turkey 2013.
The confirmation of the debacle came this year. Argentina bowed out of the U17 and U20 World Cups without winning a single game. In the first, they drew with Panama and Austria and lost to Ghana; in the second they lost to Germany, Mexico and Australia, and finished last in a FIFA tournament for the first time in their history.
Although the results at junior level are not necessarily proportional to the production of players from a particular country, it is noteworthy that of the 25 players that made Gerardo Martino’s latest list for the qualifying matches for Russia 2018 –a list that doesn’t include injured Messi and Aguero-, only 5, Ramiro Funes Mori, Matías Kranevitter, Erik Lamela, Angel Correa and Paulo Dybala are under 25 years old. And only the last two are playing in the Champions League this season.
The explanation for this debacle has, in my opinion, two reasons, which are independent of each other, but reveal the situation of Argentine football in general. The first has to do with influence peddling in the Asociación de Fútbol Argentino (AFA), which has used the managerial jobs in the National Teams as rewards for misunderstood loyalties and cronyism.
Until 2008, the bench of the Argentine youth teams had continuity generated by the project that began with Nestor Pekerman in 1994 and then was continued his assistants. In those 13 years, the project generated 5 World U-20 championships, two Olympic gold medals and an Olympic silver medal.
Then, the AFA decided to jettison the project and offer the helm of the youth teams as rewards for services accomplished in the past. So, there came the former 1986 world champions at the request of Carlos Bilardo, none of which had the credentials for running youth teams. Worse, later on, the man in charge was the son of Julio Grondona, Humberto, first as director of the youth teams and then as coach of the U17 in 2013 and U20 in 2015.
That lack of professionalism of those coaches is, in fact, a consequence of the general state of Argentine football, which is the second reason of the debacle, and is undoubtedly affecting the generation and development of talent in the country.
The Argentine championship is going through one of the worst crises in its history. Decrepit stadiums, pitches in poor condition and a first tier with 30 teams has caused the quality of football to become absolutely horrendous. As it is impossible to play the ball on the ground on those pitches, the matches have become physical combats rather than talent shows, and the players that stand out are those able to get used to the conditions, not those with higher quality.
It is true that Argentina have the last two champions of the Libertadores Cup, but neither San Lorenzo and River Plate were noted for their spectacular offensive style. They were solid in defense, tactically sound, intelligent and very effective in the defensive phases of the game. They were, however, a far cry from the quality sides of the past, for example, the River Plate team that won the Libertadores in 1996 and even the legendary three-time champions Boca Juniors of the 2000s, which also stood out for their grit and effort, but who certainly played a more appealing brand of football and had more quality players than the current sides.
Still, Argentina's neigborhood clubs continue to have the infrastructure, the talent scouts and the youth coaches to groom a potential future superstar. And, with elections for president of the AFA in a few months, there could be changes in the structure of the National Teams, but, for now, the generation of talent in one of the most important football sides in the world is going through a major crisis that will affect the country for the next years to come.