After almost three years of absence, Estefanía Banini has made her comeback to the Argentina national team. The 31-year-old left the Albiceleste in 2019 after she demanded change from the federation.
Last week, the news of a star returning to her national team, after years of conflict, left many buzzing with excitement. All eyes were on Ada Hegerberg’s comeback, and of course the topic deserved the attention it got.
But many didn’t take notice of Banini’s return—a story that has many surprising parallels to the Norwegian’s.
The former captain of Argentina, who many call the team’s best player, returned on 7 April. In front of 15,000 spectators, the 0-1 defeat to Chile was a secondary matter.
A star under the radar
Banini, contrary to Hegerberg, might not be a household name for women’s football fans. But her return is equally important for her national team and the women’s game. Having spent several years in the US and now playing for Atlético Madrid in Spain, Banini is probably the most well-known female footballer in Argentina.Embed from Getty Images
Her technique and intelligence on the pitch have earned her a spot in the CONMEBOL women’s team of the decade. Some describe her role similar to Marta’s in Brazil a few years ago. Given these recognitions, it comes to no surprise that in Argentina, her return sparked optimism for the future. But why had Banini left the national team in the first place?
Albiceleste disbanded in 2015
To understand this, we have to go back to 2015. The Argentinian national team had just failed to qualify for the World Cup in Canada.
Shortly after, they lost their funding from the federation. For the next two years, the national team effectively didn’t exist. They didn’t have a FIFA ranking or a coach.
Sensational World Cup success
As the federation finally re-established the women’s team, the hopes for success were naturally low. Despite this, the Albiceleste not only managed to qualify for the 2019 World Cup, but they also won their first ever points.
Argentina held 2011 winners Japan to a draw and managed a spectacular comeback against Scotland, equalizing after being 0-3 down.Embed from Getty Images
Banini, with the iconic number 10 on her shirt, captained the team and played a pivotal role. Given these results, some may think that everything was hunky-dory.
Problems under the surface
Quite the opposite was the case. Shortly after the World Cup, four experienced Argentinian players—one of them Banini—criticized their coach, Carlos Borrello. They called for a coaching staff with more experience and expertise.
“We all think he doesn’t have enough capability,” said Banini. She added that he wasn’t on the level technically and tactically.
Her criticism was met with incomprehension from parts of the federation and the media. The national team had just achieved one of the biggest successes of their history. Some said they were lucky to even play again.
Why would she complain, shouldn’t she be grateful instead? How wrong could Borrello’s methods be if he had turned them into a team able to compete with the best in such a short time span?
Banini left out of the squad following her criticism
In the summer of 2019, another major tournament took place: The Pan-American games. Borrello left Banini and Belén Potassa, also belonging to the group of players who had criticized him, out of the squad.
Borrello was heavily criticized for that decision. Many consider it likely that he took this decision in retaliation, and to suppress further criticism. In solidarity, Florencia Bonsegundo, playing in the Primera Iberdrola, decided to decline call-ups.
Banini then decided not to come back to the team anymore, even if she was invited again. In October 2019, she said:
“I continue to wishfully think about wearing the jersey of the national team again… Wearing the blue and white is the most beautiful thing that happened in my career, it’s unexplainable. To have your dream of playing for Argentina taken away because of a claim for improvement is very painful, but I have faith that everything will get better.”
Part of the criticism was also directed at the Argentinian federation, accused of not listening to the players.
Comeback made possible by change of coach
Months and years passed, and nothing happened. Then, in July 2021, Borrello left his position as head coach to become coordinator of the Argentinian’s women’s teams.
Germán Portanova became Argentina’s new coach and an injury initially hindered her return, but he selected Banini this year. When she heard the national anthem again after more than 1,000 days, her dream finally became true again.
Of course, the deep-rooted issues are yet to be resolved. Borrello took a position that might even be more important. At its core, the problem is the communication between players and federation. How will criticism be dealt with in the future?
For now, Banini’s return is something worth celebrating. A visibly emotional Banini said after her comeback:
“I have felt the support of the people. Of course I am happy for this support during these three years, which have been very hard and very sad for me, because being in the national team is the most beautiful thing there is. I thank the people, they have been the engine, I appreciate this new opportunity and now we will try to improve further.”
Key role for Banini at Copa América
Even though the fans couldn’t celebrate her historic return with a win, many agree that Banini brought a spark to the team they sorely missed before.
This summer, from the 8 to 30 July, Argentina will compete in the Copa América Femenina. Banini might well play a key role in the Albiceleste’s success.