“Lionel Scaloni was so emotional he cried after the game. I didn’t have much sympathy for him because he cost us a winner’s medal.”
The 2006 FA Cup final is a day Jimmy Walker will never forget.
“I looked at him and thought, ‘Of course, you should be crying’,” Walker tells The Athletic. “We were so close. Honestly, what was he thinking? All he had to do was kick the ball into row Z. He didn’t know about row Z before the game, but he certainly knew about it on the plane ride after!”
The former West Ham United goalkeeper was on the substitutes’ bench when his team-mates were four minutes away from beating Liverpool in Cardiff 16 years ago. West Ham were on the verge of winning their first trophy in 26 years.
They were leading 3-2 and 88:46 was on the clock when Scaloni kicked the ball out near West Ham’s corner flag so Djibril Cisse could receive treatment for a cramp in his left leg. But Scaloni’s sporting gesture had huge repercussions. Dietmar Hamann took the throw-in and returned the ball to Scaloni, who cleared the ball into the middle of the field. Steven Gerrard controlled the clearance and passed to John Arne Riise, whose cross was headed away by Danny Gabbidon. Gerrard latched onto the loose ball and equalised with a brilliant long-range strike past Shaka Hislop.
The final went to extra time and West Ham lost to Liverpool on penalties.
“It was tough for all of us,” says Walker. “If Lionel lets it run out for a goal kick, Shaka takes his time, a bit more time wasting from the others, then the game is finished. That’s how close we were. I think Lionel panicked a little bit and the rest is hurtful history.
“I refuse to watch the game back. It’s still fresh in my mind. When I see Lionel on TV, all the memories come flooding back like, ‘That damn Lionel cost us a winner’s medal’. Then I wonder if I would’ve saved Steven Gerrard’s shot if I played. It’s all what-ifs but the not knowing is the killer. I’d love to know if that game against Liverpool changed Lionel for the better. Just in terms of how to remain calm under pressure. He could be a World Cup winner with Argentina. What a turnaround.”
Scaloni, 44, has come a long way since that day in south Wales. On Sunday, he leads Argentina into their fifth World Cup final. The guy remembered by some for costing West Ham silverware is on the verge of winning the biggest prize in football.
“The world came crashing down on me,” Scaloni said about the FA Cup final, speaking before the tournament in Qatar. “I lost an FA Cup, it was partly my fault because I didn’t clear well and life changed. West Ham don’t want to sign me and I returned to Spain. That night, after the FA Cup final, it was like I didn’t want to play football anymore.”
On deadline day in January 2006, Scaloni joined West Ham on loan from Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna. The full-back was brought in as a replacement for Tomas Repka, who joined Sparta Prague for family reasons.
“Lionel is strong and aggressive and I am sure our fans will enjoy seeing him play,” said then-manager Alan Pardew. “Initially, I didn’t want to take anybody on loan, but when the opportunity arose to sign a player of this quality, I simply couldn’t turn it down. Hopefully, it will be a success for us, and a success for him, and it is something that may turn into a long-term deal if all goes well.”
Scaloni made his debut in the 2-0 home win against Sunderland. He started 17 of West Ham’s final 19 matches in 2005-06 and was popular in the dressing room.
“He came in and we didn’t know too much about him but he was a bubbly character,” says former West Ham midfielder Hayden Mullins. “He was part of the group and a good guy. Ever since he became manager of Argentina, I’ve kept track of how he’s done. But I could never have imagined him becoming a manager. He was never one that would ask loads of questions, mainly due to the language barrier. But what he’s gone on to achieve is amazing.
“I’ve been watching the World Cup with my boys and whenever we watch Argentina I tell them, ‘I used to play with Lionel Scaloni’. And they say, ‘Yes, Dad, you’ve told us already’. It would be good to see him again because I haven’t seen him since the cup final.”
Mullins, who missed the final through suspension, does not believe Scaloni was at fault for the defeat.
“He gets tarnished with losing us that game, which is harsh,” he says. “His clearance didn’t go far enough but I wouldn’t say it was all down to him. Unfortunately, the ball eventually fell to the best player in the Premier League at the time, Gerrard. If people are going to blame Lionel then you can blame someone for not closing Gerrard down, or the goalkeeper for letting it in, so it certainly wasn’t Lionel’s fault.”
West Ham beat Norwich City, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Manchester City and Middlesborough before playing Liverpool at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Scaloni played in four of those cup games.
“Lionel was a lovely guy and one of those signings that made a real effort to fit in with the lads,” says Walker. “The journey to the final was a funny one. We had a trip to Dubai before the quarter-finals against Manchester City. On a night out, we thought we lost our £9million ($11m) striker in Dean Ashton. No one could find him and it turns out he got back to our hotel earlier than us and wasn’t answering his door.
“But we were all thinking, ‘How the hell are we going to tell the manager we can’t find Dean?’. Then he scored two goals against Manchester City. Lionel must’ve thought we were crazy, but we had a tight group and he was part of that.”
Scaloni, who won seven caps for Argentina, had spells at Racing Santander, Lazio, Mallorca and Atalanta after leaving West Ham. He was an analyst for Jorge Sampaoli at Sevilla before being appointed manager of Argentina in 2018. Scaloni had no head coach experience but he has proved doubters wrong. He won the 2021 Copa America against Brazil — Argentina’s first trophy since 1993. He led the team to a 36-game unbeaten run, the longest in their history.
“I’m not surprised he’s become a manager,” says former midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker, another member of that team. “He was a thinker, intelligent and a good player for us. Sometimes I wonder if Lionel shares that story against Liverpool with his players. What to do in pressure situations and how to react in those moments. Argentina were winning 2-0 against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals then conceded two late goals. I wonder if Lionel referenced that day in Cardiff to motivate his players. Argentina bounced back and won the game. That shows the character of the group, which comes from the manager.”
Argentina’s last World Cup final appearance came in 2014, when they lost the final against Germany. They have not won international football’s most prestigious competition since 1986. But Mullins is backing Scaloni to win Argentina’s third World Cup.
“They lost to Saudi Arabia and Lionel made a lot of changes,” says Mullins. “He brought in Alexis Mac Allister, who has impressed. It was brave to make those changes and Scaloni deserves a lot of praise. I’m going to watch the game and it will be tough for Argentina. But it would be great to see one of my former team-mates and Lionel Messi, the best player in the world, win the World Cup.”
(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)