ST PETERSBURG, Russia — When a football manager talks of “lies, fake news” and of being treated like a “criminal” ahead of a game that will decide the fate of his team — and, almost certainly, himself — it is safe to assume that all is not well.
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli is an irascible character at the best of times but, at his press conference ahead of Tuesday’s decisive Group D clash with Nigeria, the 58-year-old made no attempt to hide his frustration and anger at events surrounding his squad since last Thursday’s 3-0 defeat against Croatia left his side facing a do-or-die encounter with the Super Eagles.
Reports in Argentina and Spain since that humiliation in Nizhny Novgorod have suggested that Sampaoli has lost the faith of his squad, with some going so far as to suggest that the players will select the starting XI and tactics in St Petersburg.
Javier Mascherano has confirmed a players’ meeting with the beleaguered coach in recent days but, with Sampaoli bearing the brunt of the criticism in Argentina, the former Chile and Sevilla coach delivered a blunt riposte to his critics who, he claimed, live in the “virtual world.”
“I can’t really clarify things that are untrue and things that don’t exist,” Sampoali said. “There are so many comments, so many stories going around. We don’t know what are true, what are lies, there are so many people speaking.
“But I don’t live in the virtual world and consume lies and fake news,” he continued. “Some people I have to work with on a daily basis are consumed by the virtual world and I have to make sure they are prepared to take part in a match, in their legs and heads, because if you aren’t, you will not perform as well.”
Among many permutations, the most simple is that Argentina must win and hope Iceland do not beat Croatia, in order to definitely qualify. After a difficult few days, Sampaoli insisted that his players were ready to take on the challenge they face.
“You can become isolated and it becomes difficult to face adversity, but we have to do that,” Sampaoli said. “But yet, it has been a very difficult week after that defeat (against Croatia). It was painful for us and we now find ourselves in the last match with everything at stake.”
Painful would be a good word to describe Sampaoli’s ordeal at the hands of his Argentine media tormentors. Having repeatedly referred to the “virtual world,” he was asked instead to talk about the “real world” in a clear case of defiance, even goading, by critics who cannot accept such a powerhouse nation being on the brink of World Cup elimination.
“The separation (between real world and virtual world) you allude to is very easy for me,” he said. “If you lose a match, you lose, but you don’t lose in the virtual world. Sometimes people make you feel like a criminal in the virtual world because you lost a game or changed a player.
“If I were to think that I’ve got to immerse myself in the virtual world, I would have to throw in the towel and leave my position. I am a coach with enthusiasm and a clear idea what I want to achieve. But sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.”
Despite the fighting talk, there is an undeniable air of crisis surrounding the two-time world champions. Sampaoli is struggling to control his squad and impose his methods and tactical demands; the coach caused confusion by switching tactics and formations vs. Croatia after a 1-1 opening-game draw with Iceland.