The biggest news that came out of yesterday’s Copa America Centenario wasn’t Chile’s penalty shootout victory over Argentina, but what La Albiceleste’s biggest star did after the match was over. Minutes after Lionel Messi skied a penalty kick over the bar helping Chile win their second consecutive Copa America title over Argentina, the best player in the world sat in front of a microphone and retired from international football.
Messi might be forgiven for throwing in the towel after such a heartbreaking loss, as he’s taken his share of crap over the years for never equalling his club exploits at the international level. He’s also been hamstrung by incredible expectations from a football-mad country, and an Argentine football federation that’s a complete mess. However, it gets worse: reports came out in the ensuing hours that Messi wasn’t the only player to retire from Argentina: Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria and Lucas Biglia are all either reported to or rumored to announce their international retirement in the coming days.
But what is huge turnover for Argentina in the wake of a tough loss in New Jersey could be excellent news for Erik Lamela. Tottenham Hotspur’s attacking midfielder, whom they bought from AS Roma for a club record £30m back in 2013, has had a breakout season for Spurs in the Premier League, going from a talented but flaky technical player to a creative midfield force under Mauricio Pochettino.
This summer’s Copa America was in some ways Lamela’s coming out party for Argentina. While still (mostly) relegated to a reserve role, he played in nearly all of Argentina’s matches as an impact substitute and transferred the high intensity midfield press he picked up at Tottenham under Pochettino to Argentina to great effect. He scored two goals, pressed the hell out of defenders, and looked quite good in the process. It was, by all accounts, a highly successful international cup for Erik.
Even so, when you’re mired behind the undisputed best player in world football, it’s difficult to get chances. So long as Messi stayed part of the Argentina setup, Lamela would likely find his chances fewer and farther between.
Messi’s almost certainly gone, but if the remaining six players actually follow through on their threats to retire, it leaves a massive talent void, one that Argentina will find difficult to fill in the short term. La Albiceleste will need to embark on a massive rebuilding project, one that will provide an incredible opportunity for Lamela. While he plays mostly as a left sided inside forward for Tottenham, he’s capable of playing anywhere along the front attacking midfield band, which makes him an important utility player as Argentina restructures. He’d be looked to not only as a replacement in Argentina’s lineup, but would very likely be considered a key player in the midfield along with Nicolas Gaitan. The answer at center forward is a lot less clear cut, but 22-year old
Palermo Juventus striker Paulo Dybala is probably going to inherit the keys to the kingdom.
It’s quite possible that a few of the younger Argentine players rumored to be quitting the team such as may walk back their decisions in the coming days as the disappointment of their loss to Chile starts to fade. Di Maria and Aguero in particular are set to massively benefit in appearances and importance if they decide to stick around; an attacking band of Lamela, Di Maria and Gaitan behind Aguero may not have quite the pedigree of one that includes Lionel Messi, but it’s still a very solid attack. If not, well, Javier Pastore’s still around, and there are plenty of young Argentine footballers who would get their chance in the two years heading into next World Cup in Russia.
Argentina’s next international match is a World Cup qualifier against Uruguay on September 1. We should know a lot more by then what Argentina’s plans are for the future. Either way, expect that future to heavily include Erik Lamela: he has the chance now to make a name for himself not just as a club player, but as a genuine international star for one of the best footballing nations in the world.