argentina football history

La Albiceleste and Argentina Football History 

Argentina, also known as ‘La Albiceleste’ (The White and Sky Blues), is one of the most popular national teams. They have a long and illustrious football history. Their previous exploits have earned them 17 major awards, including two World Cups and 14 Copa America titles.

Argentina is a football-crazy country, with many top players hailing from the South American country. Alfredo Di Stefano, Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi are among them. Let’s dive into history and remind ourselves of this legendary team before Qatar World Cup 2022. 

The Conflict with Uruguay

Argentina hosted the first edition of the Campeonato Sudamericano (the predecessor of the Copa América) in 1916. Argentina and Uruguay dominated South American football at the time, and the neighbor to the east often had the upper hand. It happened in the 1916 final and again in the Summer Olympics. 

Argentina won its first Campeonato Sudamericano title in 1921, 12 years later, and three more victories in the same decade, in the first World Cup 14 years later. Argentina was clearly capable of competing with the best teams in Europe at the time; during a continent tour in 1925, Argentina won 16 of 19 games.

The Olympic Games were the most prestigious international tournament prior to the establishment of the World Cup. Argentina made its first appearance in the tournament in 1928. The team dominated the tournament, winning by a combined score of 23-5 before facing big rival Uruguay in the final. The game ended 1-1, prompting a rematch three days later, in which Uruguay won 2 to 1.

Argentina would be one of 13 teams competing in the first World Cup, which would be held in Uruguay. They won their group ahead of Chile, France, and Mexico, and after defeating the United States 6-1 in the semi-finals, they would meet Uruguay in an immortal final.

This was probably the biggest game in Argentine football history, and over 10,000 Argentine fans traveled to Montevideo to watch the game at the Estadio Centenario. Uruguay took and early lead, but Argentina scored the next two goals thanks to Carlos Peucelle and Guillermo Stábile. However, the outcome would be Argentine frustration, because Uruguay scored 3 more goals to win 4-2.

After a string of mediocre World Cups, Uruguay’s dominance in the game would wane, but Argentina would not take over as football’s superpower. Between 1934 and 1962, the national team either delivered mediocre results or did not compete in the World Cup at all. This was due in large part to the fact that Argentina did not use professional players in its national team until 1962.

The squad that competed in the second World Cup, held in Italy, was especially weak, and it was eliminated from the tournament after losing to Sweden in the first game.

Argentina would withdraw from all World Cup tournaments after 1934 (partly due to a dispute with FIFA, partly due to political protectionism) until 1958. The 1958 team was South American champions, but it was ruined by Italian buyers who lured players like Omar Sivori, Antonio Angelillo, and Humberto Maschio to Europe. 

Above that, Roberto Zárate of the River Plates was injured. Argentina had long dominated South American football, but the team that represented the country in the 1958 World Cup was a disaster, finishing fourth and last in their group, including a 1-6 humiliation against Czechoslovakia in the third match.

South American Football’s Dominant Force

Nonetheless, excellent results in the Campeonato Sudamericano (South American Championships) continued. After losing to Uruguay in the final again in 1935, the Albiceleste won against the Campeonato Sudamericano in a playoff against Brazil.

Argentina won four of the six Campeonato Sudamericanos in the 1940s (the AFA did not send a team in 1949), and they would remain one of the best-performing sides on the continent the following decade. One of Argentina’s best tournament performances came in the 1957 Campeonato Sudamericano. They were undefeated throughout the tournament until losing in the final game, with a combined score of 26-6 against the rest of the continent (i.e., Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay).


Following the 1958 meltdown in Sweden, a new coaching staff was installed, with Victorio Spinetto as head coach, and a nearly entirely new player squad was assembled. Argentina performed admirably once more when they competed in the Campeonato Sudamericano on home soil, finishing first, one point ahead of Brazil.

In Angels with Dirty Faces, Jonathan Wilson writes, “in the 1960s, Argentinian soccer became tougher and more cynical, the outlook more defensive,” referring to national club football.

Argentina did qualify for the 1962 World Cup, which was held in Chile. It would be a victory for one South American team, but not for Argentina. Brazil would win the tournament, while Argentina would be eliminated from the group stage by a razor-thin margin to England.

Years later, Argentina qualified, along with three other Conmebol members, for the 1966 World Cup in England. The preparations had been hampered by the military coup that occurred just a month before the final tournament, as well as the sudden appointment of a new coach, Juan Carlos Lorenzo, just weeks before the first match in England. The players didn’t agree with Lorenzo on the playing system, which harmed them even more. Furthermore, the players were taken aback when they discovered that the ball to be used in the tournament was not the same as the model they had used in training.

Argentina would advance to the knockout stage, but England would be the reason for their elimination. The Argentine team failed to score in front of over 90,000 spectators at Wembley Stadium, and England went on to win the match and later the tournament, thanks to a late goal by Geoff Hurst.

A Period of No Glory

Things deteriorated further. Juan Carlos Lorenzo resigned shortly after the World Cup in England, ushering in a period in which many coaches lasted only a few months. The results on the field were poor, and Argentina failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time.

After that low point, Adolfo Pedernera, one of the best Argentine players in history, did not last long as head coach. Juan José Pizzuti, Omar Sivori, and Vladislao Cap would follow in the same capacity.

Argentina qualified for the 1974 World Cup, which was held in Germany. They would advance to the second round of the tournament with Poland from Group 4 after some half-convincing games. The format of the World Cup had changed by this edition, with a second group stage preceding the knockout stage. Argentina failed to win a single game in their group, which included the Netherlands, Brazil, and East Germany.

The Campeonato Sudamericano ended in 1967 but was revived in 1975 and renamed Copa América. The first Copa América was not a new success for Argentina, which was drawn into the same group as Brazil. Both Brazil and Argentina won comfortably against Venezuela (Argentina won one of the matches 11-0, their second largest win ever – the biggest was 12-0 against Ecuador in 1942), but Brazil would win 2-1 and 1-0 against Argentina.

The following year, as a result of a military coup, President Isabel Perón was deposed, and General Jorge Rafael Videla took over. Argentina’s political situation had been unstable even before the 1976 coup – the first military coup occurred in 1930, and many governments had been involved with the military in some way prior to 1976. However, the 1976 coup remains the most notorious in Argentine history, marking the beginning of the country’s dark period. During this time, approximately 30,000 people who did not support the regime “disappeared.”

Argentina was forced to host the 1978 World Cup due to poor timing. The stadium construction and restoration were far behind schedule, but as time passed, the process accelerated, and the stadiums were ready when the tournament began. That didn’t stop the World Cup in Argentina from being a contentious one, and the players on the home team faced a moral quandary. Nonetheless, it would turn out to be the Argentine football national team’s greatest success to date.

After the 1974 World Cup, Vladislao Cap was fired as head coach of the national team, and Luis Menotti took over. Menotti would hold the position for eight years, becoming one of the most well-known AFA coaches. His football philosophy would leave an indelible mark on Argentine football, and he would also be the first to lead the team to a world championship title.

Menotti changed the preparation routines for a larger tournament as one of the first things he did. He prioritized the national team and extended the preparation period. More players were tested before a World Cup squad was selected than in the past. Diego Maradona, who had made his debut in 1977, was one of the candidates for the Argentina XI at the time. Maradona was eventually left out of the 1978 World Cup squad, but the young prodigy would go on to star in Argentina’s U20 team, which won the 1979 FIFA World Youth Championship.

Except for Valencia’s Mario Kempes, Menotti’s squad for the 1978 World Cup tournament was entirely made up of South America-based players.

Argentina looked good after two victories over Hungary and France in the much-anticipated tournament. Italy waited for the final group match, and now the defeat arrived, as AFA were defeated 1-0. Nonetheless, Argentina advanced to the second round and was grouped with Brazil, Peru, and Poland. 

The crucial match against Brazil ended in a draw, resulting in a race for the best goal difference. Brazil had a 5-goal differential after three games, while Argentina had only a 2-goal differential before their last match against Peru. They needed to win by a margin of at least three goals.

The match on June 21 at Estadio Gigante de Arroyito has become one of the most contentious in World Cup history. When the final whistle blew, Argentina had won 6-0 and would play in the final, while Brazil would play for third place. Some have speculated that the match against Peru was fixed, but no proof has ever been provided.

When Argentina, led by Mario Kempes who scored 2 goals, defeated the Netherlands in a dramatic final, white confetti would rain down on the Estadio Monumental field in Buenos Aires.

Maradona’s Reign

The 1982 World Cup took place during the Falkland Islands War. The Argentine press did its best to portray Argentina as the stronger party; as a result, when the players arrived in Europe and read Spanish newspapers commenting on the war from an objective standpoint – the Argentine was clearly losing the conflict.

Even though Maradona was in the squad, it was clear from the start that the 1982 Argentina team couldn’t match the champion standard of 1978. They lost their first match against Belgium but bounced back with victories in the next two group games.

In the second round, Argentina was drawn with Italy and Brazil and lost both games. Italy would go on to win the trophy.

Menotti resigned shortly after the 1982 World Cup, and Carlos Bilardo, who had previously been successful with Estudiantes, was appointed as the new national team coach. Carlos Bilardo may be remembered as Argentina’s most successful coach, leading the country to two World Cup finals. However, this era was when the team’s average result across all competition matches was the worst ever. Argentina finished third in the Copa América back in the 1980s.

The golden 1986 World Cup event in Mexico is, of course, the most memorable. The victory has frequently been attributed to one man, but things are a little more complicated in football. Argentina had a tactical ace up its sleeve in the form of a 3-5-2 formation first tested by Bilardo in 1984.

Many stars, including Enzo Francescoli, Michel Platini, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, and Hugo Sánchez, were expected to deliver outstanding performances in Mexico that summer. But one player stood out above the rest: Diego Maradona, who had 5 goals and 5 assists (Argentina scored 14 goals in the tournament).

The referees did not allow the same rough treatment that had hampered and frustrated the football genius in 1982, which was an important aspect of Maradona’s superior role. Furthermore, the team had been built around him, giving him a natural leadership role.

Argentina easily advanced from their group after two victories and one draw. Maradona had performed admirably, but he would raise his game even higher in the subsequent matches against Uruguay, England, and Belgium. In the final, his impact was minimal; West Germany did an excellent job of neutralizing his impact, but they couldn’t stop him from delivering the perfect pass to Burruchaga, setting him free against goalkeeper Harald Schumacher to score the deciding 3-2 goal.

On the other hand, the world champion team’s results after 1986 were bleak. As the hosts of the Copa América in 1987, AFA was eliminated in the semi-finals after a 0-1 loss to Uruguay and then lost the third-place match to Colombia.

Claudio Caniggia played in the 1987 Copa América and would replace Valdano as Maradona’s forward partner in the following World Cup. The 1990 World Cup in Italy would almost be another Argentine triumph. Apart from the outcome, the team’s performance could not match that of the previous tournament (the performance of their biggest star, Maradona, was impacted by a toe injury).

Argentina had to fight all the way after a crushing loss to Cameron in the first game. Goalkeeper Nery Pumpido broke his leg in the same game and was replaced by Sergio Goycochea. Sergio Goycochea, a penalty save expert, would become a key figure after Argentina was involved in two penalty shootouts. Argentina did not win another match during the regular season after defeating Brazil in Round 16, in which Maradona made his most memorable play by driving the ball from the middle of the field and, when surrendered by Brazilian players, set up Caniggia to score. They eliminated Yugoslavia and Italy in penalty shootouts after scores of 0-0 and 1-1.

Argentina was in another World Cup final, despite finishing third in their group, being pressed by Brazil in the round of 16, and winning only on penalties. However, the odds were not in favor. Caniggia was not only not performing at a champion level but also received his second yellow card in the semi-final and was not permitted to play in the final.

The Argentine players would deliver anti-football to the final spectators. A penalty in the final ten minutes would effectively decide the game in favor of West Germany. It would be another 24 years before Argentina made another World Cup final, and that game would also end in defeat after one German goal.

During the years that followed, Maradona’s life was hectic, influenced by events outside of football, and many were surprised when he was named to the 1994 World Cup squad (Maradona had rejoined the team for the Playoff match against Australia). But, sadly, the World Cup story would soon come to an end. Despite a strong showing on the field, Maradona was forced to withdraw from the tournament after testing positive for ephedrine.

Maradona would be replaced by Ariel Ortega, an exciting player with a similar style to the former number 10. Despite this, Argentina was eliminated in the round of 16 by a fantastic Romanian team.

Generations to come

New generations of players would step up, including names like Gabriel Batistuta, Diego Simeone, Javier Zanetti, and Juan Sebastián Verón.

Daniel Passarella had taken over as coach and imposed strict discipline, prohibiting long hair, earrings, and even homosexuality (!). Batistuta was separated from the team for an extended period of time until he finally cut his hair; Fernando Redondo, who refused a concession, remained outside the team.

Argentina would go on to defeat England in a thriller in the World Cup that followed but would lose a tight semi-final against the Netherlands. Argentina, now coached by Marcelo Bielsa, faced England again in 2002, this time in the group stage, and lost 1-2. That meant they needed to beat Sweden in the final match (or England would have to lose to Nigeria), but despite a huge playing advantage, the game ended 1-1. Argentina was eliminated in the first round for the first time since 1962.

Argentina’s squad for the following World Cup included stars such as Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso, and Juan Román Riquelme. They became one of the favorites after a 6-0 demolition of Serbia and Montenegro, including a magnificent football display. Lionel Messi made his World Cup debut in the same game, contributing one assist and one goal.

The match against Mexico in the round of 16 was closer than expected, but Maxi Rodrguez won it 2-1 in extra time with a stunning long-range shot. Unfortunately for Argentina fans, the national team was eliminated in the quarter-finals after a penalty shootout by the host team Germany.

Coach José Pékerman would be chastised for not allowing Messi to play a single minute in the previous game. Alfio Basile took over as manager. Although he only lasted two years before it was time for another chapter in the life of Diego Maradona in Argentine football. He was appointed as the new coach in October 2008, and he would remain for the following World Cup tournament qualification and finals.

With Maradona as a coach and his heir on the field, Argentina’s hopes for a third World Cup victory were high. On the other hand, Messi would not be the savior many had hoped for. Argentina would be defeated in a World Cup by Germany once more, this time humiliatingly. Germany defeated Argentina 4-0 in Cape Town, ending four years of anticipation for Albiceleste fans.

In 2014, it was once again a World Cup on South American soil that many expected to be “Messi’s tournament.” And, at the very least, it would be Argentine. Brazil, perhaps the favorite, after all, was completely destroyed in the semi-final. Argentina, who had advanced to the final, was dissatisfied with the opponent’s name. According to statistics, Argentina had not beaten Germany (or West Germany) in a World Cup since 1986.

Argentina played defensively in the final, which was perhaps unsurprising given Germany’s dominance over Brazil. Mario Götze would crush Argentina’s hopes near the end of extra time.

Messi, as the game’s biggest star at the time, had a lot to live up to in the 2018 World Cup. Already in the second game against Croatia, it was clear that Argentina and Messi were unlikely to deliver the results that many had predicted. Argentina was defeated by a score of three to none. Nonetheless, Argentina finished second in the group despite intense pressure. France, the soon-to-be champions, eliminated them in a spectacular match, winning with a score of 4-3.

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