Sergio Romero has made it clear: he thinks he could have been ready for Argentina’s opening World Cup game against Iceland this Saturday.
Right at the start of the team’s training sessions, an old knee problem flared up, and coach Jose Sampaoli made the decision to drop him from the squad. Nahuel Guzman was hurriedly called up to replace him and join Willy Caballero and Franco Armani as the team’s trio of goalkeepers. All of them are over 30. But they have less than 10 caps between them, and none of them have played a senior competitive international.
Their lack of practice has been exacerbated by the fact that Argentina’s friendly match against Israel last Saturday did not go ahead. In an example of player power, the squad refused to go. For sporting reasons, Sampaoli had not been in favour of playing the game, complaining that he would rather stay in Barcelona, where the team were training, and that from the point of Argentina’s FA the main point of the game was to make money.
The players – who have been frustrated by the lack of competence of the local FA in recent years – became aware that the game had a strong political dimension – as part of Israel’s 70 years celebrations the match had controversially been switched from Haifa to Jerusalem. Worried about security implications, they made their displeasure clear, and the game was called off.
It means that Argentina’s only match practice since a 6-1 mauling by Spain at the end of March was a 4-0 stroll against an understrength Haiti side back in Buenos Aires at the end of May. Even is such undemanding circumstances they were utterly dependent on Lionel Messi, who scored three and made the other.
The match was not much of a test for Caballero, winning his third cap. He is thought to be in front of Armani on the basis that he is better with his feet. But he was far from convincing off his line against Spain, and did not even look especially comfortable in the Haiti match.
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All of this makes it hard to understand the absence of Romero from the squad. With 94 games he is Argentina’s most capped keeper, and has spent almost a decade, and the previous two World Cups, as the undisputed first choice.
Sampaoli said that he wanted a keeper who was able to train intensively with the team in the run up to the tournament. It is fair point. But with the squad having to contain three keepers, Argentina could have waited, especially as they would be able to make a change in their squad for injury reasons as late as 24 hours before Saturday’s opening game against Iceland.
Perhaps the truth is that Sampaoli was already edging towards the idea of making a change of goalkeeper. Romero has spent much of his club career on the bench, and Sampaoli had been voicing his concern at the keeper’s inactivity with Manchester United. When he called up his World Cup squad, before Romero’s injury problem, the coach said that it would be “imprudent” to determine which of his keepers would start against Iceland.
Goalkeeper is a position of trust – and Sampaoli’s in Romero was clearly limited. In this case, it seems, the coach came to the conclusion that this keeper was not worth waiting for.
Caballero, of course, is also a reserve at Chelsea – after carrying out the same role at Manchester City. And Armani was until a few months ago based in Colombia and in the process of taking out Colombian citizenship, at least partly in the hope of gatecrashing their World Cup squad. Now one of them will soon be making a competitive debut – and they may be wishing they had been able to find their feet with at least one serious warm-up game before stepping into the global spotlight.