By CATHAL KELLY
Friday, June 22, 2018
TORONTO -- What will hurt most about Argentina's 3-0 humiliation against Croatia on Thursday is that Diego Maradona was right.
Maradona is a more accomplished gasbag than he was a player, which is really saying something. Though he has no official duties with the national setup, he goes where the team goes. No legendary player in any sport is more anxious to make himself available to reporters (well, except that time he shot a bunch of them with an air rifle because they were cramming up the driveway to his house).
After Argentina drew its first game against Iceland, Maradona did the usual business.
"I get the feeling there's an anger at the heart of the team," he said. "It's a disgrace ... I don't blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate, but I can't blame the players."
Three guesses who he's blaming. A hint: it's the person whose job he'd like to have.
Maradona says these sorts of things compulsively. He's always in on a secret no one else knows, and actually doesn't exist. But this time, he may have stumbled onto the truth.
The Argentines played Thursday as if they were angry with someone, very possibly each other. And the work rate? It was so far below what you'd expect at this level that it was a genuine disgrace.
The only Argentine who'll be happy about the scoreline is goalkeeper Willy Caballero. It obscures the howler that led to the first goal. Inexplicably attempting to chip a ball over Croatian Ante Rebic, Caballero instead passed it to him. Rebic, a blunt object up front who is 90-per-cent lungs, didn't have enough time to start thinking and screw it up. He dinked the ball back over Caballero into the net.
That was terrible, but it was the way Argentina responded that caught your attention. With 40 minutes left in the game, they gave up.
The second Croatian goal was a beauty from distance by Luka Modric, the man shaping up as the early player of the tournament.
Modric was allowed about 15 minutes to juke around at the edge of the penalty area looking for an open shot lane because none of the Argentine forward players had come back to help.
The third goal was so absurd it ought to be the focus of a Spanishlanguage Samuel Beckett revival.
Croatia penetrated on the counter at speed. Argentina jogged back indifferently to meet them.
Croatia so effectively pulled the defence apart that the Argentines assumed they were offside. They weren't. The entire Argentine team was standing around watching, many with an arm raised, while the ball was slowly steered around Caballero and in.
It'd be bad if a decently coached high-school team had done it. For a side with this pedigree, in this tournament, in this situation, it is unforgivable. Most of them should have sat down on the sidelines for the last 10 minutes. That way, they wouldn't have gotten in the way of the two or three teammates who still wanted to play.
Though there is a lot of blame and many deserve to share it, most of it will land on Lionel Messi. Once again, he made little impression on the encounter.
Near the end, you could finally see the frustration you know must be there, but is never shown publicly. After getting tangled with a defender, Messi began awkwardly wrestling the much larger man. The Croatian, Ivan Strinic, looked more surprised than offended. It is hard to recall an instance of Messi so pointlessly losing his temper during a game.
Once it ended, he shambled off the field without shaking hands - an exceedingly rare instance of poor sportsmanship.
The result puts Croatia through to the knockout rounds.
On the basis of performance, they may be the favourites now.
They have experience, skill, patience and a tireless team work ethic.
When Croatia was pinned in its own end, all 11 men defended.
Their opponents couldn't persuade their defenders to defend.
Argentina could still advance, but needs help from Iceland.
There's a sentence you could not have imagined writing, well, ever.
Based on what we've seen so far, it'll be a small miracle if the Argentines can rouse themselves to get on the team bus together in five days' time. Sorting out their differences on the field may be too big an ask.
If they go out, it'll be time to start prepping the obituary for Messi's international career. It has to this point been a fairly enormous disappointment.
If a great player comes out of Hungary or Liberia, he will be afforded the benefit of the doubt if, by the end, he has not won a trophy of consequence. An Argentine doesn't get the same pass. To be great, he must win, and Messi has never done that for his country.
He is only 30 years old and still near the peak of his powers. But forwards who rely on bursts of speed - as Messi does - don't tend to age well into their 30s. His nemesis, Ronaldo, is the exception that proves the rule.
Messi has already quit Argentina once, announcing his international retirement after losing the 2016 Copa America final.
The country went into a panic.
The president called him "God's gift" and said, "Lionel Messi is the greatest thing we have in Argentina." The city of Buenos Aires erected a statue of him in the hopes of changing his mind. After a massive national campaign, Messi relented.
If it ends in ashes again, one wonders if he can be bothered any more; or if Argentines will care to go begging again. Everyone involved has his or her pride and it has just taken a once-in-ageneration beating.
By the time the next World Cup rolls around, Messi will be 34.
It's almost certain he won't be anywhere close to the best there is by that point. He'll be a guy trying to drag himself over an arbitrary finish line and knowing that if he doesn't, it'll just make things worse. Does he want that?
There are three weeks and a lot of storylines left to play out in Russia, but it's possible we have already seen the best of them: That Argentina, one of the sport's pilgrimage sites, was gifted one of the greatest talents in soccer history and somehow conspired to waste it.
Croatian defender Domagoj Vida vies with superstar Lionel Messi during a World Cup Group D match on Thursday in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, that ended in a humiliating 3-0 loss for Argentina.
JOHANNES EISELE/ AFP/GETTY IMAGES