15. 1999 Copa America
(2-0-2, out in quarters, +0.15 adjusted goals per match)
Honestly, I had expected a different team to fall into this position, but the 1999 Copa America was the site of Argentina’s worst performance in the past 23 years of futility. The team skewed younger than the previous year’s World Cup roster, with the bulk of the side formed from domestic talent. Including Boca Juniors striker Martin Palermo, 13 of the 22 players on the final roster suiting up for Argentine clubs.
Things started just fine for this group, with a 3-1 victory over 49th-ranked Ecuador that set Argentina in pole position atop Group C. The following match against 32nd-ranked Colombia was a disaster for Argentina, though, as Palermo missed three penalty kick opportunities and Colombia dominated to win 3-0. Argentina closed out the group stage with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Rioplatense rivals Uruguay, who were ranked just 74th in the world at that time.
The house of cards came tumbling down against Brazil in the quarterfinals, then the number-one team in the world. 23-year-old defender Juan Pablo Sorin put Argentina ahead just 10 minutes into the match, but the lead wouldn’t even survive until halftime. Rivaldo leveled the scoreline for Brazil in the 32nd minute, and soon after the intermission Ronaldo beat goalkeeper German Burgos to put the Brazilians ahead for good.
14. 2002 World Cup
(1-1-1, out in group stage, +0.21 adjusted goals per match)
This is the squad I thought would end up in the bottom position, thanks to the ignominy of being the only Argentine side since 1993 not to even advance to the knockout stage of the tournament in which it was competing. But at the same time this squad, skewing older than previous tournament rosters, played a trio of tough opponents that offered no respite.
Things started out well enough when Argentina knocked off 32nd-ranked Nigeria 1-0 in the opener, Gabriel Batistuta’s last career goal for Argentina proving the difference against the African side. Against archenemy England, then the seventh-best squad in the world, David Beckham’s penalty conversion right before halftime was enough to put the European squad ahead for good. And against 20th-ranked Sweden, the Argentinians needed a late equalizer from Hernan Crespo just to pull out a draw.
In the end four points was not enough for Argentina to advance any further in the tournament, thanks to the fact that both Sweden and England had drawn against one another and emerged with five points apiece. The Albiceleste were forced to watch from the sidelines as hated rivals Brazil walked away with the country’s fifth World Cup title, further distancing themselves from their southern neighbors.
13. 1997 Copa America
(1-2-1, out in quarters, +0.27 adjusted goals per match)
Skewed heavily toward domestic players, the 1997 Copa America squad featured just six players who would suit up for Argentina the following year at the World Cup in France. All but four of the players named to the roster featured for domestic clubs, and only one of the four European-based team members would prove good enough to make the World Cup squad a year later.
The group stage went well enough for Argentina. A scoreless draw against 40th-ranked Ecuador opened the proceedings, providing a point in the process. The Albiceleste followed that up by adding three more points against 27th-ranked Chile, with Sergio Berti and Marcelo Gallardo — both of whom also featured a year later in France — providing the goals. A 1-1 draw to 22nd-ranked Paraguay completed the group stage, a late Gallardo penalty providing a point and allowing Argentina to qualify as second-best in Group A.
The tournament ended quickly in the knockout stage, however. Against Peru, Argentina dug itself into a two-goal deficit within the first hour. Gallardo converted another penalty for his third goal of the tournament, but Argentina failed to find an equalizer and were summarily bounced from the tournament by the 39th-best team in the world.
12. 1993 Copa America
(2-4-0, champions, +0.29 adjusted goals per match)
This is the team that started the whole exercise that led to this article, the champions that have spiraled Argentina into ever-deeper chasms of despair with each missed chance of replicating the feat. Frankly, I’m shocked to see the last championship-winning Argentine side ranked so low, but I set out to leave my biases behind me and go by the numbers. And the numbers show that the 1993 Copa America winners were far more lucky than they were good. Leaning heavily on the scoring of a 24-year-old Gabriel Batistuta up front and the heroics of veteran goalkeeper and tournament MVP Sergio Goycochea, the underpowered 1993 squad failed to even win its own group and needed two penalty shootouts to reach the final.
The Argentinians started the 1993 tournament with an underwhelming 1-0 victory over 87th-ranked Bolivia, Batistuta providing the difference between three points and one. A pair of 1-1 draws, against 25th-ranked Mexico and 35th-ranked Colombia respectively, rounded out Group C play. In the second match, Diego Simeone put Argentina ahead just two minutes into the match only to turn around and allow Freddy Rincon to equalize three minutes later.
Against Brazil, third-best in the world at the time, Leonardo Rodriguez headed in a corner in the second half to level the score and force extra time. Without any more goals, Argentina converted six straight penalties in the shootout to prevail over their rivals. They turned around and repeated the feat four days later in a rematch against Colombia, netting another half-dozen in a row after a scoreless draw took it to the shootout. That set up a final showdown with Mexico, another matchup with a group-stage opponent. Batistuta scored the go-ahead goal in the 63rd minute, only to see Benjamin Galindo equalize on a penalty four minutes later. With just over a quarter-hour left to play, Batistuta found a second goal for the winner.
When they won, they won close matches, finding the goal at just the right time. Four times, though, they either coughed up a lead or had to claw back an equalizer just to draw. They leaned heavily on one scorer and their goalkeeper to claim their medals and win the Copa. And yet, while they are ostensibly just the 12th best by the numbers, Argentina has been longing to reclaim the same luck ever since.
11. 2011 Copa America
(1-3-0, out in quarters, +0.32 adjusted goals per match)
The 2011 Copa America squad is the first of 11 different teams to rank higher than the last Argentine champions, despite having bombed out in the quarterfinals. This team actually looks a lot like the 1993 squad, though this crew actually had the advantage of playing before partisan crowds on home soil. Fielding a full-strength squad for the tournament, Argentina mustered only one win and a trio of draws which culminated in a shootout defeat to Uruguay and an early exit.
The squad took a while to heat up, which should have been a warning sign from the outset. Against 94th-ranked Bolivia, Argentina needed a goal from substitute Sergio Aguero in the 75th minute just to secure a draw. Against 54th-ranked Colombia they failed to find the goal, needing goalkeeper Sergio Romero to come up big several times to hold on for a point. They finally started scoring against 55th-ranked Costa Rica, winning 3-0 as Aguero scored twice from up top and Angel di Maria found the third as a withdrawn forward.
In the quarterfinal, running into much stiffer competition in the form of 18th-ranked Uruguay, the hosts allowed Diego Perez to beat Romero just five minutes in to the match. Gonzalo Higuain, long upheld as the scapegoat for so many Argentina failures, was the one who actually allowed Argentina to even think about taking the match to extra time after he found the equalizer a dozen minutes after Perez scored the go-ahead goal. In the shootout, Fernando Muslera saved Carlos Tevez’s effort to allow the visitors to prevail over their Rioplatense rivals, and Argentina was forced to watch as Uruguay advanced all the way to the championship.