When Lionel Messi booted his penalty attempt high over the bar at the final of the Copa America Centenario at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on Sunday, and Sergio Romero failed to stop any other attempts from the Chilean side, it set Argentina’s trophy drought to 23 years and counting. For the third straight year the Albiceleste came tantalizingly close to breaking their decades-long streak without a championship, taking a title match to extra time before falling to their opponents.
Two years ago it was a German side that eked out a goal in the second period of extra time of the 2014 FIFA World Cup final, preventing a penalty shootout in the process. Both last summer and this June, Argentina tumbled in a penalty shootout to Chile. In every case, the opportunities were there for the Argentinians to break through and claim the crown that has felt inevitable for so long for this generation of players donning the blue and white.
And so 1993 remains the benchmark to which every subsequent Argentine side has tried to return. Each successive failure has been another weight around the necks of this generation, with Messi and company continuing to fight the underachiever label even as they struggle to bring silverware back to the Rio de la Plata.
But how good was that 1993 team whose achievements the current national team once again failed to replicate? And does the lack of a championship invalidate how good Argentina has been since that last title?
Too often in sports we overvalue the trophies when evaluating the careers of players and groups, burying the achievements of stellar teams when they fail to snatch the ultimate prize. With this in mind, let’s look at the 1993 Copa America that remains Argentina’s last championship as well as the 14 subsequent international tournaments in which the country has competed.
Before we dive into ranking each of these Argentine sides and their place in history, it seems important to go over the methodology used to rank each of these teams. Much like with the adjusted margin of victory component used to help calculate our college football Pigskin Rating System figures, the goal here is to evaluate the results from Argentina’s past 15 international tournament appearances and create an adjusted goal differential based on the quality of the opponent played.
To do this, I first compiled the results of the 75 Copa America and World Cup matches Argentina has played since the 1993 Copa. I then went through the FIFA World Rankings, which date back conveniently to 1993, and determined where each of Argentina’s opponents was ranked at the time they played. While the FIFA coefficient has altered over time, and is hardly infallible, this at least provides an objective and empirical constant by which to adjust for quality.
In terms of victories, I wanted to adjust to give credit on a sliding scale based on the quality of the opponent at the time of the match. Because Argentina never played a team ranked below 100 in any of the 15 tournaments, this allowed for a simple subtraction of the team’s place from a baseline of 101. This is then divided by 100 to determine a percentage value for the quality of opponent in victory.
(Any number above 100 could have been chosen here; while the final weighted number would have been different, the relative differences would have remained. 101 was merely the clearest representation for rounding purposes. The full dataset spreadsheet is available for review at the end of this article.)
This adjusted rank was applied to every victory, providing a weighted goal differential in the process. For example, looking at Argentina’s 4-0 victory over the United States in the most recent Copa America, the adjusted margin of victory is calculated by taking the USA’s rank at the start of the tournament (31st) and applying it to this formula:
WEIGHTED GOAL DIFFERENTIAL IN VICTORY =
4 GOAL VICTORY x [(101 – 31st OPPONENT RANK)/100]
The resulting figure determines the victory to be worth 2.8 adjusted goals. This was applied to each victory.
Conversely, the opponent rank was not adjusted in terms of those matches that Argentina lost. In other words, Argentina is punished less for losses to other top-tier sides than to lower-level opponents. To put this into context, let’s look at another matchup between the USA and Argentina, this time from the 1995 Copa America. The Americans defeated the Argentinian team 3-0 in that tournament as the 34th-best team in the world. Thus the weighted negative goal differential is calculated thusly:
WEIGHTED GOAL DIFFERENTIAL IN DEFEAT =
3 GOAL VICTORY x (34th OPPONENT RANK/100)
In this instance Argentina is penalized with a weighted goal differential of -1.02; by comparison, Argentina’s 3-0 loss to third-ranked Brazil in the 2007 Copa America final only counts for -0.09 goals against Argentina due to the opponent’s higher ranking.
In terms of draws, the zero-sum goal differential results in neither penalty nor benefit. The last wrinkle came down to penalty shootouts. Technically draws in terms of the official record, they nevertheless result in a winner and a loser. The winner of each shootout was thus credited with a 0.5 goal differential to account for advancement, while the vanquished opponent was dinged with a -0.5 goal differential to balance the equation. The above weighting applies to both figures, in terms of victory versus defeat.
IF YOU’RE NOT HERE FOR THE MATH, THOUGH… here’s a simple way of thinking about it. Beating good opponents counts for more than beating bad opponents. Losing to good opponents counts for less of a penalty than losing to bad opponents. Shootout results count for half a goal, while draws are null.
That should just about cover the bases, so click ahead to start seeing where each iteration of the Argentine national team ranks relative to one another in terms of how they have performed since that last championship…