Thousands of raging angry Argentinians filled the streets of Buenos Aires between the night of Thursday, January 10, 2002 and the following morning. They destroyed ATMs, set fires in the streets, banged on pots and pans and ransacked banks.

The Argentine protestors also spray-painted on the wall of the Casa Rosada, the country’s federal government office: “Banks, give us our money now!” and “Duhalde, thief!” Eduardo Duhalde was Argentina’s third president in just four years. It was only his eighth day in office.

The South American country was going through a severe economic crisis, so severe that there was a tight limit on how much money the people could take out of their bank accounts. Many businesses went bankrupt while the Argentine peso lost three-quarter of its value as the unemployment rate increased to 25 percent.

There wasn’t a quick fix to the problem but there was something that could appease the pain, something that could give the country ecstasy even during this calamity: the 2002 World Cup.

“Nobody had faith in anything except football…,” an Argentine housewife, Susana, told Reuters.

Their football team was worthy of putting their faith in, it was a reliable stress-reliever. Argentina weren’t just another powerful team entering the World Cup, they were the favorites to win it. Hence, the Argentine people had more than just hopes of seeing their country put in a terrific World Cup campaign but they could even dream of watching their compatriots lift the trophy and celebrating with them in a parade in the same streets where the riots took place.

La Albiceleste had a squad that would strike fear in some of the finest national teams around in 2002. They were packed with world-class talents in every corner of the pitch—and even on the sideline. The country’s head coach was the reigning International Federation of Football History & Statistics’ World’s Best National Coach, Marcelo Bielsa.

Bielsa was one of the best coaches in the world for a variety of reasons. He has a great relationship with his players and often makes a major impact on their careers. Mauricio Pochettino, who played under Bielsa in the World Cup called the Argentine coach his “football father.” Furthermore, the former Espanyol coach is extremely passionate about football, which easily rubs on on the players.

In line with that, Bielsa pushes his players to their very best and conducts intense game-like trainings. Elsewhere, the Rosario native is well-known for constantly watching football videos to learn more about his team and his opponents. He also shows the videos to his players. With his many qualities, Bielsa won the Primera División in Argentina three times and made the final of the Copa Libertadores once before switching to international football. 

Some of his best defenders going to the World Cup were Serie A stars: Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel. Zanetti was Inter Milan’s skipper. He helped Inter finish just two points shy of the championship before the finals. As for Samuel, he was a ferocious A.S. Roma centre back, who, at 24, established himself as one of the best defenders in Italy in his first season there, 2000-01.

Argentina also had an outstanding 29-year-old centre back in Spain in Roberto Ayala. Ayala won the UEFA Club Best Defender of the Year in the 2000-01 campaign and LaLiga with Valencia the season just before the World Cup.

Pochettino was another veteran defender. The then 30-year-old won two Spanish Cups with Espanyol during a seven-year tenure with them. But before the World Cup, Pochettino just finished his first season with Paris Saint-Germain, racking 42 appearances.

Moving up the pitch, Argentina’s midfield was led by the then-most expensive transfer in England, Juan Sebastián Verón. The defensive midfielder won six titles in his five years in Italy before his move to Manchester United. Surprisingly, after his move to United, Verón’s performances dropped considerably.

Bielsa’s number 10 was Ariel Ortega, a flashy unpredictable playmaker with soothing ball control. Ortega had made the FIFA XI in 2001 and the South American Team of the Year in 1994, 1996 and 2001. 

The Latino side’s most recognized veteran midfielder was 32-year-old Diego Simeone, who was playing his third World Cup. He only took part in eight Serie A games with Lazio before the World Cup but did score in the last round of the campaign against Inter. 

The team was a perfect mix of veterans and players in their prime. On the flip side of Simeone’s experience, Argentina’s fresh legs and energy came from the young superstar Pablo Aimar. Aimar started his professional career at 17 with River Plate. He won the Primera División three times with River Plate in four years while recording 21 goals and 28 assists in 82 games.

Valencia then signed Aimar for a club-record fee in 2001. In the 2000-01 season, the youngster helped Los Che reach the Champions League final. The following year Valencia won LaLiga.

Another key player from Valencia also made Argentina’s squad, winger Kily González. González while other options in the squad were Celta Vigo’s left winger, Gustavo Lopez, and Monaco’s playmaker, Marcelo Gallardo.  

On the attacking end, Argentina’s most notable goal threats were Gabriel Batistuta, Hernán Crespo and Claudio López. Batistuta was perhaps the most revered player in the squad, having been the nation’s highest-ever goalscorer.

Batistuta was on the wrong side of 30 but still had some of those powerful strikes left in his boots. As for Crespo, he was a 26-year-old and had just finished as Lazio’s top scorer. Meanwhile, López was the Italian side’s second top scorer. 

Perhaps the country’s weakest link was their glovesman, Pablo Cavallero. He was playing his club football in Spain with Celta Vigo, a side that had just finished fifth in La Liga. Cavallero wasn’t a superstar but he was a trustworthy keeper.

The two-time World Cup champions’ roster could’ve been even more threatening. Shockingly, Bielsa didn’t call Real Madrid midfielder, Santiago Solari, La Liga’s fourth top scorer Javier Saviola and 2001 Argentine Footballer of the Year, Juan Román Riquelme.

On an opposite note, Bielsa brought 35-year-old Rangers striker, Claudio Caniggia, back on the team. Caniggia was banned from playing in the last World Cup for having long hair by the last head coach, Daniel Passarella. 

The economic crisis back home wasn’t Argentina’s only motivation to win the World Cup. They hadn’t celebrated a trophy in nine years. The last tournament the country won was the 1993 Copa América.

Sadly in 2001, they were forced to withdraw from the Copa América because of death threats. 

In the last tournament La Seleccion played in, the 1999 Copa América, they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by their rivals Brazil, 2-1, after scoring the opener early in the game. After nine painful trophyless years, four years of a throbbing economic crisis, the 2002 World Cup was a must for Argentina.

“We came here to win the championship,” midfielder Matías Almeyda said. Their first match wasn’t an easy one as it was against a dangerous Nigerian side led by the skillful Jay-Jay Okocha. The game was scheduled to start at 2:30 p.m. at Kashima Soccer Stadium in Japan. Over in Argentina it was 2:30 a.m.

Things didn’t start too well for the South Americans. Their captain, one of the best centre backs in the world, Ayala, picked up a strain in his thigh during warm-up and was ruled out of the tournament. Verón, who as mentioned was undeforming for his club wore the captain’s armband in place of the 29-year-old. 

Diego Placente stepped in at centre back for Ayala. He had only played in six games with Argentina and he was primarily a left-back. However, Placente was coming from a spectacular club season as his side Bayer Leverkusen reached the Champions League final, only to lose to Real Madrid.

Argentina fielded a 3-4-3 on the field with fullbacks Zanetti and Juan Pablo Sorín converting to right and left wing-backs, respectively. 

The 14-time Copa America winners dominated the first half but couldn’t find the net. It wasn’t until the 63rd minute they broke the deadlock when Batistuta swiped a header in the net from a tight angle on a corner kick.

They won the match 1-0. Thus, it began as most Argentines hoped and expected. The painkiller was working its wonders in Argentina. It obviously also meant a lot for the players. Simeone tightly hugged Zanetti after the game with his face squeezing with emotions as one ready to cry. 

Even though Argentina won the match by a tight margin, it was a promising victory.

“There was nothing in the match against Nigeria that particularly worried me,” Bielsa told The Guardian. “I was pleased with the collective performance.”

The CONMEBOL side’s next game was five days later against England at the Saporro Dome stadium in an 8:30 p.m. kickoff so it wasn’t gruesomely early in Argentina as in the previous match. It was only 8:30 a.m. The Argentines gathered together again with their coffee, hoping their heroes would continue to prove to the world that although the country was in a tight spot, they still had football.

“Our people are suffering a lot and football isn’t going to solve their problems,” Aimar said before the game. “But we want them to be happy, for a couple of hours at least.”

Making their country happy wasn’t an easy mission because England was a side full of talents with the likes of David Beckham, Ashley Cole and Michael Owen. Plus, they drew their opener 1-1 with Sweden, which meant the Three Lions desperately wanted to win that encounter. The Argentines were up to the task.

“Maybe our players will be fighting for the ball even harder than in other matches,” Almeyda said, “although, I suppose it shouldn’t be like that. Anyhow, football is just a sport. We’re not talking about war here.”

It was somewhat like a war on the pitch. Batistuta furiously slide-tackled Cole in the 12th minute. Owen Hargreaves was subbed out in the 19th minute because of a shin injury. The midfielder’s own teammate, Owen, injured him as they tackled Zanetti. Later in the 40th minute Kily González got a bloody nose.

Amid the hard hits, England looked more threatening offensively especially when Owen hit the post in the 24th minute. A couple minutes before the break, the Ballon d’Or winner was about to juke past Pochettino in the box. The Argentine defender was already beaten by Trevor Sinclair earlier in the match, not wanting to get past again he stuck his leg out and tripped Owen. Penalty. 

Beckham scored from the spot to put England up 1-0. At half-time, Bielsa subbed his captain Veron for Aimar. Veron was the best player on the pitch versus Nigeria but against England he performed just how he was playing for Manchester United, giving the ball away without any pressure.

Argentina searched and searched for an equalizer after the break. They came close when Pochettino hammered a header on frame but England’s keeper, David Seaman, scooped down to save it. The equalizer never came. 

Pain struck the Argentines as the referee blew the final whistle. Their dream-team just lost to England in the World Cup. But it wasn’t over, they just had to beat Sweden to exit the group stage. Sweden was an underdog but did draw with England and defeated Nigeria.

The kick-off time against Sweden back in Argentina was 3:30 a.m. At 4:44 a.m., the tired eyes of the Argentines had to watch their country go down 1-0 in the 59th minute. The 70th minute passed, no leveler. The 80th minute passed, still no equalizer.

Ortega drew a penalty in the 88th minute. Was it finally their chance to equalize? Ortega missed the spot-kick, but Crespo was there to bang the rebound home. They finally leveled it up 1-1 but still had to score a winner to crawl out of their group and only had two minutes plus stoppage time.

La Seleccion took 14 shots and had 65 percent of ball possession but couldn’t defeat Sweden.

“Nobody had faith in anything except football and now we don’t even have that,” Susana said.

The painkiller, the stress reliever failed the Argentines and it was back to their sad reality.

“Argentina really, really needed at least one good thing to happen to us,” José, a then 27-year-old Argentine, said with tears in his eyes. “But nothing goes right in Argentina anymore. We had such high expectations. And now we have only the economy to think about again. What a disaster.”

Instead of replacing pain with joy, the World Cup only brought more sadness to Argentina, but the country had a ray of sunshine waiting for them right around the corner. By next month, the crisis was done. 

Now it was the manager and the players who needed a painkiller. Bielsa was drenched in sadness and disappointment after failing to meet the expectations. He wasn’t even sure if he would keep his job or not. 

Simeone was greatly disheartened because he played in three World Cups but never lifted the trophy. Neither did Batistuta nor Caniggia in their three tries. Verón called the end of the game against Sweden “the worst moment of his career” and apologized to his fellow Argentines. He went through a very stressful time after the World Cup. The former midfielder told The Guardian he isolated himself, cried at night and strolled in the streets alone. 

Falling so short of their high expectations of winning the World Cup to comfort their country formed a crisis in Argentina’s national team itself and left it with a deep scar. It’s safe to say it was one of the most painful moments in the team’s history.


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