Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

In the matter of France playing Argentina on Saturday in the World Cup’s Round of 16, all bets are off. Neither team has played to its potential. France is packed with some of the best young talent in Europe yet it has gone through a sleepwalking version of getting to the knockout stage.

Argentina is the greater puzzle, though. The inexplicable strangeness of a team with Lionel Messi stumbling through a tied game with Iceland, a defeat to Croatia and a hair’s breadth win over Nigeria. Why can’t Messi’s magic be unlocked and unleashed? It’s about numbers and systems. And the key number is 10. It always is with Argentina.

Lionel Messi wears No. 10 but he is not a traditional 10. In fact Messi is not a traditional Argentine player at all. There lies the problem. And, probably, there is no solution.

Story continues below advertisement

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the 2018 World Cup match against Nigeria.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Argentina is the most neurotic soccer nation on earth. You have to be there to grasp the abnormality of it. A few years ago I went to Buenos Aires to see Argentina play Colombia in a World Cup qualifying game. The upshot was Argentina won it 1-0, with Daniel (Cata) Díaz scoring his first and only goal for his country. Diego Maradona was the team manager, Messi was the superstar player and was invisible throughout.

During the game at the River Plate stadium, the home supporters were mostly quiet and strangely so. I asked my translator, Marcelo, what people were saying. The gist, he said, was “I’m worried.” Everybody was saying they were worried about the team, the tactics, the formation.

After the game Maradona gave a rambling news conference in which he complained about the field, the stadium, the referee. But, he said, a win is a win.

My host for the visit was Carlos Pachame, a former player both for Argentina club teams Estudiantes and Boca Juniors and for the national team. He had coached Argentina’s under-20 national team and was assistant coach to Carlos Bilardo when Bilardo coached Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and to the final of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. If you watch the video of Maradona scoring his two amazing goals against England in 1986, you can see Carlos on the sideline, smiling, as Maradona does his magic.

After the game in Buenos Aires, Carlos took me out for dinner at a traditional steak house. Over enormous steaks and many glasses of Malbec, the Argentina team and its problems were discussed. Carlos has excellent English but Marcelo came, too, and was a bit awed to be in the company of the great Pachame. Marcelo asked him why he hadn’t attended the game, but he already knew the answer. Carlos had long since fallen out with Maradona – everybody had – and being there would be awkward.

Eventually Carlos got down to analyzing Argentina’s performance. He turned over a big paper placemat to its blank side and began making diagrams of the tactics needed to exploit the exquisite talent of Messi. By the end of the evening he’d gone through five paper placemats.

The obsession in Argentina is with finding and using a “trequartista”, an attacking midfielder to control the tempo of the game and supply the ball to the best striker. In Argentina the role of the midfielder is usually defined by the number on the shirt: A 6 is a defensive player, the 8 is a central midfielder and the 10 is an attacking midfielder. Maradona was a 10, and it is Messi’s number, too.

Story continues below advertisement

The problem, really, is that Messi is not a traditional 10 is any sense. Messi operates in a pocket of space on the right side of the opposing team’s penalty area. It’s where he gets the most creative action for his club team, Barcelona. He is skilled enough to be a 6, an 8 or a traditional 10, but he is none of those things. He is Messi, unique at dribbling, finding space and formidably accurate with the ball at his feet.

What Messi needs to flourish in this Argentina team is, in truth, an old-school 10 playing behind him, ensuring the ball gets to Messi at the perfect moment. An old-school 10 like Juan Roman Riquelme was for Argentina in and around the period of the 2006 World Cup. I saw Argentina play there, too, in a quarter-final loss to Germany. Argentina had dominated a cagey match and was leading 1-0 with 15 minutes remaining. It was then that manager Jose Pekerman took Riquelme off and Germany was able to find space to score an equalizer and, after extra-time, Germany won on penalties. The game ended in fistacuffs as a furious Argentina exploded in rage. Mostly, mind you, it was rage at its own failure. At that game, Lionel Messi, then 19 years old, sat on the bench, unused.

Any joy Messi has had at this World Cup came from a traditional Argentina-style midfielder supporting him. In the game against Iceland it was only when attacking midfielder Ever Banega was introduced in the second half that Messi got ball supply. In the game against Nigeria it was Banega (who wears the number 7) who sent that glorious pass to Messi for that superbly executed goal. Against Croatia, Banega sat in the bench, unused. Systems, you see, systems must be used.

That night in Buenos Aires, Carlos Pachame spent all that time trying to find a way to best use Messi. The conclusion was that Messi didn’t fit into the system. He still doesn’t. The old-school Argentina system needs to change to suit him, against France especially. He’s not a 10 that anyone has seen before.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies