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22nd Jun 2019

Argentina’s failures will never take away from Lionel Messi’s greatness

Reuben Pinder

This all feels very familiar

Once again, the Argentinian football team are in crisis. They seem to be permanently in crisis. Depending on other results, they could be eliminated from the Copa America at the first hurdle this weekend. Having only picked up one point from their first two matches, they need a win against invited side Qatar and for Colombia to beat Paraguay by at least two goals.

It’s more probable than not that they will make it through, but that they are not guaranteed a place in the round of 16 already is huge cause for concern for a nation with the greatest player ever to play the beautiful game, Lionel Messi.

Inevitably, a lot of the blame for Argentina’s consistently underwhelming performances is levelled at Messi. As their talisman and captain, he is expected to step up and be the hero in times of need. On countless occasions, he has. But it is still not enough for some.

Measuring Messi’s greatness on his achievements – or lack thereof – at international level is reductive and ignores the many nuanced factors that played a part in Argentina’s recent failures. Gonzalo Higuaín’s tendency to miss clear cut chances being one of them.

Argentina have always been considered one of the best sides in international football. Given some of the players at their disposal over the years, they have consistently been expected to reach the latter stages of World Cups. But despite having one of the deepest talent pools in South America, particularly in attack, Messi is too often let down by his teammates at times when a unified effort and some air of cohesion is required. As demonstrated by the picture below.

In the above image, the score is tied at 1-1. It’s the 93rd minute and Argentina need a goal. Messi has the ball, and absolutely no help. There are just two of his teammates visible on screen, one of whom looks like he’s about to vomit. The other looks on, forty-odd yards away, hugging the touchline, utterly refusing to offer Messi a way out of trouble.

Messi has no other option but to attempt to dribble through eight (EIGHT) players. The most tragic thing is that this is not an isolated incident. Watch any Argentina game and a significant chunk of it will just be Messi trying to dribble out of trouble, surrounded by five opponents, all kicking lumps out of him, disrupting the play. Exhibit A:

And yet, in spite of everything that inhibits Messi on the field, he managed to drag his country to three finals in three years between 2014 and 2016 – something often overlooked by those who jump at any chance to bash him.

Of every tournament they have competed in over the last decade, the 2014 World Cup was Argentina’s least shambolic. They had more or less a balanced squad, which featured the likes of Sergio Agüero, Higuaín, Angel Di María and Javier Mascherano. Under the management of Alejandro Sabella, La Albiceleste were able to harness Messi’s powers to great effect, deploying him a the tip of a diamond, allowing him free rein to work his magic. Winning goals in the group against Bosnia and Iran from their captain saw them proceed to the knockout stages where, for once, some other players helped shoulder the scoring burden.

But then in the final, it didn’t quite happen. Higuaín missed a sitter after just 20 minutes before having a goal disallowed for offside shortly afterwards. Had either of those moments resulted in goals, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

In the subsequent two years, Argentina suffered equally brutal heartbreaks in two Copa America tournaments, both on penalties, both at the hands of Chile.

In the first, the Chileans set out to rough Messi up. He is used to that sort of treatment of course, but a boot to the midriff early on took the wind out of his sails and Argentina were wounded for the rest of the game. Higuaín skied a penalty in the shoot-out and once again Argentina fell at the final hurdle.

The following year, an exact repeat of the 2015 heartbreak. Higuaín missed a one on one chance in the first half again, and Messi missed his penalty in the shootout.

No finger pointing this time, but it seemed Argentina were cursed – each heartbreak appearing to inflict further damage to the team’s psychological state than the last. This was the toughest moment of Messi’s career. Under a torrent of criticism for failing to drag his team that final inch, he took the decision to retire from international football.

The country quickly changed their tone.

President of Argentina Mauricio Macri pleaded with Messi not to quit, saying: “We are lucky, it is one of life’s pleasures, it is a gift from God to have the best player in the world in a footballing country like ours… Lionel Messi is the greatest thing we have in Argentina and we must take care of him.”

Mayor of Buenos Aires Horacio Rodríguez Larreta unveiled a statue in the capital in honour of the country’s most prised possession. On social media, #NoTeVayasLeo (Don’t leave, Leo) trended worldwide. Road signs in Buenos Aires displayed the slogan while 50,000 people congregated in the city centre to sing it. Heartfelt pleas for Messi to forgive and forget flooded YouTube.

Some tried to come to terms with his retirement by suggesting that Argentina might benefit from his absence. Without him to fall back on, the rest of the team would be forced to step up. That was quickly put to bed, as they were taken to the cleaners by Spain, who cruised to a 6-1 victory against a Messi-less Argentina.

That poor form continued into Argentina’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, when they were in genuine danger of missing out on qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1970. Such is Messi’s inherent desire to succeed with his country, he returned to the national team in their hour of need and dug them out of trouble. After going 1-0 down after 40 seconds, Messi scored a hat-trick against Ecuador to secure his country’s first victory in Quito since 2001 and their place in the World Cup.

The World Cup went just as many had predicted. A top heavy team relied on one player to do it all, making them too easy to nullify. A draw against Iceland and a humiliating loss to Croatia had the alarm bells ringing again. But still, that goal against Nigeria helped them scrape through before they were eliminated by eventual champions France by just one goal.

Comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo are inevitable – his long time rival now has two international trophies to his name. But their respective situations could not be more different. While Portugal’s national team do everything they can to ensure Ronaldo performs at his maximum level and step up to match it, Argentina do the opposite, hiding and hoping to be bailed out.

He might not be able to do so this time. Even if he can inspire a win over Qatar, other results must go their way. But should Argentina crash and burn, it should not reflect badly on the world’s greatest ever player, but on Argentina, a country crippled by its own insatiable need for a trophy.