Messi’s misery: Why the Argentina star needs to step up at the Copa America
When the Copa America starts this week, Lionel Messi will face the familiar burden of carrying the weight of a nation's hopes and expectations on his shoulders.
Argentina’s chances will again largely rest on the genius in the number 10 shirt; invested in him will be his country’s dreams of ending a 26-year wait for a major international trophy.
Since winning the Copa America in 1993, Argentina have suffered the pain of defeat in five major finals – Messi playing in four of those.
In that time, Argentina’s national footballing agonies have become Messi’s personal tragedies; a running sore that has festered despite all the glittering success he has enjoyed with Barcelona.
Messi has picked up four Champions League titles and dozens of other prizes with his club.
But with Argentina, nothing.
After junior success at the Under-20 World Cup and Olympics, there has been no reward for Messi’s 130 senior caps and 67 goals.
Indeed, the tears that Messi shed on his full debut for Argentina as an 18-year-old in 2005 – when he was sent off less than two minutes after coming on against Hungary – were a harbinger of what was to come.
In the 2007 Copa America final against Brazil, an Argentina team that had been impressive in the tournament up to that point went down to a 3-0 defeat.
Messi was just 20 at the time, and not yet the fulcrum of his nation’s hopes, but that was a tag he firmly bore as captain by the time Argentina reached the World Cup final in Brazil in 2014.
But again, he was largely peripheral in a final that his team lost 1-0 in extra-time to Germany, famously seen wandering off as manager Alejandro Sabella gave a team talk at the end of full time.
Agony followed in consecutive years in Copa America finals, first in 2015 when Argentina lost a shootout to hosts Chile, again after Messi had failed to make his mark on the game.
The following year, Messi missed a penalty in the shootout in New York as Argentina again lost to Chile in the centenary edition of the tournament.
A distraught Messi famously quit the team in the aftermath, vowing: "This is not for me. We've lost again. Another final. I'm not meant to be here."
He did, of course, reverse that decision, but has since faced more misery at the World Cup in Russia last summer, where despite a stunning goal against Nigeria in the group stage he failed to leave his mark on another major tournament.
A steady beacon of brilliance at Barcelona, Messi has sparkled more intermittently in the famous white and light blue of Argentina: a wonderful lob against Mexico in the 2007 Copa America, a curled effort to break a resolute Iran at the World Cup in 2014, a hat-trick against Ecuador to drag his nation into last year’s finals in Russia.
Significantly, though, he has never conjured up those moments of magic when it matters most, almost as if the burden of carrying Argentina so far proves too much just when the stakes are highest.
Messi as Argentina’s messiah is a complex story. While he is held up as a once-in-a-generation talent, he is not revered in the same way as Diego Maradona, that other legendary Argentine number 10.
Maradona almost single-handedly dragged his nation to World Cup glory in 1986; Messi does not have that career-defining tournament to his name.
Maradona did his time domestically at Boca Juniors before departing for Europe, while Messi was gone at the age of 13 and has been at Barcelona ever since.
Perhaps because he is a distant hero – geographically at least – Messi is also perceived as having less passion for his homeland.
That notion is false – Messi wears his heart on his blue and white Argentine sleeve just as much as he does in the famous Blaugrana of Barcelona – but it is a persistent one.
It is also wrong to pin Argentina’s failings solely on Messi’s shoulders.
Nine managers have been in place since he made his debut, and the team has often been accompanied by the typical turmoil and intrigue that surrounds the national set-up.
But as the leader of the team and the fulcrum of their hopes and dreams, Messi is naturally placed in a searing spotlight far more than any other player when they fail.
As Messi’s star has risen, so has his control over the Argentina team, to such an extent that he reportedly wields power over who is called up and who isn’t.
Successive Argentine managers have found the challenge of managing Messi difficult; the environment at Barcelona – which has been carefully calibrated and constructed around their star man since the days of Pep Guardiola – is much harder to replicate at international level, where games are far fewer and farther between.
Ahead of the World Cup in Russia, then-manager Jorge Sampaoli said Argentina was “Messi’s team,” and the captain was famously seen gathering the team for a huddle in the tunnel at half-time during the crunch game against Nigeria, almost as if he was giving alternative instructions to those of Sampaoli.
This time round, former international midfielder Lionel Scaloni is manager, and the team head into the Copa America as second favorites behind hosts Brazil.
They kick off against Colombia on Sunday before facing Paraguay and Qatar, and will be backed to go far – but just how far exactly will depend on whether Scaloni can coax the very best from Messi.
Observers including Jose Mourinho have pointed out that international tournaments could prove the difference in determining the destination of the Ballon d’Or this season.
Messi’s great rival Cristiano Ronaldo recently added the UEFA Nations League – admittedly not a hugely-respected accolade – to his trophy cabinet; other contenders such as Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah have the Champions League to their names.
Personal prizes and a sixth Ballon d'Or will not be forefront in Messi’s mind when he lines up for Argentina in Salvador on Sunday, but they form a subplot to the Copa America proceedings.
Messi is 31, and will turn 32 on June 24, the day after Argentina’s group game against Qatar. There is another Copa America next year to come, and the World Cup beyond that in 2022.
His brilliance is such that his legacy would withstand retirement without a major international honor to his name. But Messi's chances of winning a title with Argentina are diminishing, as are his opportunities to make the lasting, indelible mark on a tournament that his genius deserves.
Success with Argentina is the nagging itch that needs to be scratched. Lionel Messi needs to step up at this Copa America.