One year ago today, the Argentinian scored against Scotland at France 2019
Her goal was the catalyst for a spectacular Albiceleste comeback
"We didn’t win on the pitch, but we won big off of it," she says
Argentina and Scotland starred in one of the best matches of the FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019™, a thrilling 3-3 draw in the pair’s final Group D game in Paris.
Argentina went into the game with a solitary point from their opening two games but with two possible scenarios that would secure them a last-16 berth: a win would either give them second place in the group (assuming leaders England defeated Japan), or a guarantee of progress as one of the four best third-place finishers. If they drew, they were sure to finish third, but their qualification would depend on the results of other groups.
Scotland, by contrast, had nothing to show from their first two games and so had to win, and probably by a comfortable margin, to have a good chance of taking one of the best third-place slots.
With 17 minutes left on the clock, the Europeans seemed odds-on to do just that, as they led 3-0 while Japan were losing. However, everything changed when a 22-year-old forward, who was making her World Cup debut that day, kickstarted Argentina’s comeback.
"My goal against Scotland is like the time my sister told me I was going to be an aunt – a moment that will stay with me all my life," Milagros Menendez, author of La Albiceleste’s first goal that day, tells FIFA.com.
'Mili', who had come off the bench on 60 minutes, vividly remembers the experience and even admits to feeling a bit “nostalgic these days” with it being a year ago precisely. "We didn't deserve to be 3-0 down, and it seemed already settled. But when [our coach] Carlos [Borrello] called on me, my only thought was how to take advantage of the work Sole [Jaimes] had done in tiring out the Scots. That said, my legs were shaking as I took to the pitch," she confesses.
Menendez talks us through the key passage of play. "Cometti picks out Correa, who hits it long, before Bonsegundo gets her head to it and flicks it on to me. I evade one Scottish player and give it to Ippolito. As she races forward with it, _'_Bonse' goes to the right, I go left. When I find myself in space, I yell for it back, and her pass is great...".
At this point her composed finishing skills were called for. "The key was to get myself in position to receive the pass and have it on my right foot. With the keeper covering the near post, I opened my body and bang. Once I saw it go between her legs, I knew it was a goal."
The subsequent celebration was measured. "I couldn't believe it, but I just wanted to get the game restarted. I must have shouted ‘come on, we can do it!’ a thousand times... It was the boost we needed, because we knew that Japan were losing and that we had to win to qualify."
Then came the second, a shot from Bonsegundo which went in off the crossbar and keeper, and finally the penalty drama that would level things up at 3-3. In the build-up to the penalty, it was none other than Menendez who made the crucial pass to Cometti just before the defender-turned-attacker was fouled.
"I had the feeling it was a penalty, but when I ran to the VAR and saw the picture, I had no doubt. That's when I told 'Bonse' to get ready," continues the midfielder, who didn't think of asking to take the penalty, even when it had to be retaken, "out of respect for the designated penalty-taker".
Menendez still regrets that the referee did not allow a few additional minutes after they had equalised, "because we’d have won it for sure. Afterwards, we didn't know whether to be happy because of the great game we'd played, or sad because our fate was no longer in our own hands."
The team’s elimination was confirmed the next day, when Cameroon beat New Zealand at the death to prevent the first of two results Argentina needed to go their way.
"We didn’t win on the pitch, but we won big off of it," says the Racing Club striker, who surely has a future in European football.
"The World Cup was a turning point for women's football in Argentina. When we landed at the airport and saw so many girls decked out in Albiceleste jerseys, we understood that we’d done something well."
Menendez goes further in her analysis, saying: "We know the big guns are still well ahead of us, but tactically and technically, with the ball at our feet, I don’t think we should be envious of them at all."
"What sets those teams apart is their physicality and everything related to the professionalisation of the game, but both things are connected. The players of top teams can focus exclusively on football, while in Argentina, especially at club level, we have a long way to go in that respect," she stresses.
To keep growing, she says, "you have to compete and keep working. For example, because we’re in quarantine, about 25 of us players meet once a week with the entire technical staff by video call, and we work on our errors zone by zone."
After the World Cup, Argentina then won the silver medal at the Pan American Games, with Menendez again in the squad.
"I feel that the goal against Scotland has given me more confidence, but I don’t consider myself an automatic choice or a leader. I’m a player who competed in a World Cup who can, at most, give advice to the youngest girls in the squad," says Menendez, who got the words Diecinueve de Junio, minuto 73 (19 June, 73rdminute) and the Argentinian flag tattooed on her right arm.
Her goal, of course, is to be part of the process that hopefully brings Argentina to the 2023 World Cup. "We went to France with almost nothing, and we brought back a lot. It's going to be hard, but we’re breaking down more and more obstacles that we thought were insurmountable."