The day Argentina’s dream died

There was no lack of activity in the corridor connecting the Argentina dressing room with the mixed zone and the exit at the Estadio Nelson Oyarzun Arenas in Chillan: people came and went ferrying balls, ice boxes, crates of isotonic drinks and bags containing match kits and yet not a sound could be heard. The team doctor walked by: “That’s football for you,” he opined, forcing a smile.

That silence was the sound of La Albiceleste bidding farewell to the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015. Tipped as favourites, they found themselves in a tough group with fellow tournament contenders Mexico and Germany and promptly suffered three unexpected defeats, conceding eight goals and scoring just the one, and that a penalty in their final game against Australia.

The dressing room door opens and out comes coach Miguel Lemme, a mug of tea in hand and an obvious look of disappointment on his face. “It all fell away for us. A wave came and washed away the sandcastle we’d been building in our minds,” he explained to FIFA.com. “We came here with expectations. We had a dream of becoming U-17 world champions, something Argentina had never achieved. But it didn’t work out.”

A painful scar Lemme knows that it will not be long before criticism starts to come his side’s way. The first to shoulder the blame for their underwhelming performances, he said: “As I said yesterday, it’s me who’s responsible, not the boys. They can say what they want about me, but my only concern is the boys.”

The coach has been something of a father to many of the members of his team, as he explained: “We’ve been working with them since they were 14 and I feel sorry for them. It’s going to be hard for them to take but I’m sure they’ll soon get over it because they’re young. Next week they’ll be back training with their clubs and they’ll start to put it to the back of their minds, though the scar will still be there.”

Following defeats to Mexico and Germany in their opening two games in a fiercely competitive Group C, Argentina had one last chance to put things right against Australia. A win would have put them in with a chance of qualifying for the last 16. Sadly for Lemme’s charges, however, it was not to be.

“We couldn’t get the result against Mexico, and we were swept away by Germany,” he commented. “If we’d won today, we would have gone through. We just couldn’t take our chances, though, and we made two mistakes and paid for them. We tried to do things too quickly. We went out there trying to win the game straight away.”

Taking a deep breath and accepting that there was no point in lamenting his side’s misfortune any more, Lemme added: “You picture games in your mind and then you go out on the pitch and they turn out differently.”

Best foot forward So what next for his players? “I’m absolutely convinced that most of them will be playing in the top flight before long, mark my words. They’ve got the ability to do that. What they have to do now is dream of making the U-20s and winning a title.”

With that, Lemme takes his leave and silence falls again. The dressing room door opens once more, and the players emerge, making their way down the corridor one by one. There is not a sound, merely the sight of long faces and thousand-yard stares amid a general sense of disbelief.

“Sometimes the ball hits the post and goes in, and sometimes it hits the post and stays out, which is what happened to us,” said striker Matias Roskopf, barely able to conceal his disappointment at the end of a tournament in which his scoring touch deserted him.

Sad to be leaving the U-17s behind, he added: “This was our last tournament together. We might all go on to the U-20s, but there’ll be other kids too, which means we won’t be the same 21 who came here.”

Attempting to look on the bright side, he spoke of a new challenge, one that may yet help them overcome the scars of their early elimination: “This squad deserves more. let’s hope that we’ll all be together again in the full national team one day, fighting it out for the World Cup proper.”

Should that happen, the sadness and silence of today will be but a distant memory.