By Michael Lewis
The soccer gods giveth and the soccer gods taketh away, particularly at the World Cup.
At the 1990 World Cup, Sergio Goycochea was pressed into service, after regular Nery Pumpido was injured in Argentina’s second group-stage match against the Soviet Union.
Goycochea was magnificent for the rest of the way. He backstopped a win over South American rival Brazil in the second round before saving penalty shots in quarterfinal and semifinal shootout wins over Yugoslavia and Italy, respectively. He did come close to stopping Andreas Brehme’s late penalty kick in one of the worst World Cup finals ever played as West Germany prevailed, 1-0.
He also was named to the Italia ’90 all-star team.
The soccer goes certainly were smiling on Argentina.
Fast forward ahead to Russia 2018 and to Argentina’s latest back-up World Cup keeper, Willy Caballero, who will make many observers’ no-star team after his antics Thursday.
Caballero, 36, Chelsea’s backup goalkeeper who had all of four international appearances, pulled off a howler for the ages in the 53rd minute.
Instead of trying to whack the ball down field and out of harm’s way, Caballero decided to chip a short clearance to a teammate. He miskicked the ball to Ante Rebić, who smashed a volley with his right foot from point-blank range to lift Croatia into a 1-0 lead.
It went from bad to worse as the emboldened Croatians took over the game.
On Thursday, the soccer gods, for some reason, showed their wrath on the South American side and gave Croatia a lift.
You could tell during the Argentine national anthem how much weight of the world was on Lionel Messi’s shoulders. Instead of singing, Messi had his eyes closed while rubbing his far head as though he was in pain. Hardly a scene of a confident person. Messi, who had a penalty kick saved in the 1-1 draw with Iceland, played like someone who didn’t want to be on the field instead of star who should have put his best foot forward.
If La Albiceleste don’t make it out of the opening round, there will be plenty of blame to go around. That would include Messi, who just hasn’t been able to translate his club success from Barcelona to this team (there are many reasons that it would break the internet to list them all), to teammates who failed to pick him up and was absent of ideas and to coach Jorge Sampaoli, who could not find the correct combination of players and/formations to take advantage of what looked like an endless array of attacking talent.
This certainly hasn’t been the first time Argentina has grossly underachieved at the group stage. The South Americans exited early from the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, despite having such lethal goal-scoring threats as Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo.
Of course, the Argentineans (0-1-1, 1 point) still have an opportunity to move on, but the math doesn’t necessarily favor them. They need Nigeria (0-0-1, 0) to beat Iceland (0-0-1, 1) Friday (a draw would help) and to be in better shape when the third and final Group D match is played against Nigeria June 26.
On the flip side, Rebić’s goal gave the Croatians more confidence and energy while Argentina’s heads drooped.
Luka Modrić later added an insurance goal in the 80th minute and Croatia (2-0-0, 6) had booked a spot in the Round of 16. A minute into stoppage time, Ivan Rakitić tied a pretty bow on the triumph, which clinched the group title.
During the 1998 World Cup, I kept on picking Croatia to do well in the knockout round. I had seen many of its players boost Yugoslavia to the Under-20 World Cup title in 1987 — Robert Prosniecki, Davor Suker and Zvonimir Boban — formed the triumvirate on that winning team. I knew what they could do after following their progress through the years.
The Croatians finished third in France, their best World Cup showing.
I must admit I am not as well versed with the modern version of Croatia, but it is a gritty and talented side that won’t give up.
The Croatians will make life difficult against whomever they face in the Round of 16.
The Argentines? They could be returning home earlier than expected.
I remember when Messi and several of his teammates announced their international retirements after failing to grab the brass ring at the Copa America Centenario final, having lost to neighbor Chile.
Many of those players returned to the national team.
If Argentina crashes out in the first round, I can see history repeating itself again, only this time the players’ announcements could become permanent after this train wreck.