It’s no secret that Argentina’s dreams of a third World Cup triumph rest largely on Lionel Messi’s shoulders, but another man with the same first name is also an integral part of the Albiceleste’s hopes.
At 44, Lionel Scaloni is the youngest coach at the World Cup. On Friday he will compete against the oldest, 71-year-old Louis Van Gaal, when Argentina takes on the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.
“I’m proud to hire him, everyone knows what he’s done for football and how many people have tried to emulate him,” Scaloni said after Argentina beat Australia in the last 16.
“This is one of the joys that football gives you, especially because it happens at a World Cup.”
In his four years in charge of Argentina, Scaloni has already built up a huge bank of goodwill at home, most notably for clinching the 2021 Copa America – their first major trophy since the 1986 World Cup and Messi’s first for his country. It took just over a month for Argentina to beat the Dutch in 1978 to win their first World Cup when Scaloni was born in the small inland town of Pujato.
A running full-back, Scaloni had a successful playing career, mainly for Deportivo La Coruna in Spain and was part of Argentina’s squad for the 2006 World Cup, briefly playing alongside a young Messi against Mexico. Scaloni has helped the Dutch Master at least once before while at Deportivo, who helped Van Gaal’s Barcelona to the 1999-2000 La Liga title.
He cut his coaching teeth at Sevilla as assistant to Jorge Sampaoli in 2017 and his compatriot took him with him when he got the Argentina job ahead of the 2018 World Cup. Scaloni took over with Pablo Aimar as caretaker coaches as Argentina lost to eventual winners France in the round of 16 in Russia, but it was he who was named permanent successor to Sampaoli.
His first major tournament was the 2019 Copa America, where Argentina finished third after losing to hosts Brazil in the semifinals. Scaloni strengthened the defense and his rejuvenated squad – always with Messi at its heart, of course – eventually secured the South American title after a 20-game unbeaten run.
They followed that with an impressive 3-0 win over Euro winners Italy in the “Finalissima” at Wembley in June and by the time they got to Qatar the streak had stretched to 36 games. It ended dramatically with a massive upset by Saudi Arabia, but Scaloni picked up the pieces to win against Mexico and Poland took them safely through to the last 16.
The team has long been referred to as La Scaloneta – a pun on the coach’s name and the local word for a van, inspired by a meme that shows the two Lionels in the front of a team bus with the rest of the players in the back. Scaloni has never felt comfortable with the nickname and was always quick to emphasize the difficulty of the task Argentina faces, even with Messi in the squad.
“All matches are difficult,” he said after the victory in Mexico. “If you think that just because we won today, we’re going to be World Cup winners, you’re wrong.”