The 2018 World Cup was expected by many to be Lionel Messi’s time to stake a claim for the Greatest Player of All Time, and possibly end the argument once and for all. After coming so close with the national team, losing two consecutive Copa America finals and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Messi and Argentina were expected finally come good in Russia. They had to. This was likely his last chance in the national setup.
Not for the first time
Sadly, of course, it was not to be. La Albiceleste simply failed to click in Russia. The star man failed to shine. But not for the first time.
La Pugna’s journey with the national team has been a mixed bag. At times they have achieved relative success and come close to crowning it with glory. But they have always come up short. This has often frustrated the country’s fans, legends, and even the man in the middle of all of this. After a second successive failure at the Copa America, Messi had had enough. He announced his international retirement in the heat of the moment.
Many felt this was too sudden and that there was still time to make things right. After cooling off, he listened. Messi made a return to the national setup and famously pulled the nut out of the fire with a stunning hat-trick against Ecuador in a final World Cup qualifying game that could have spelled doom if Argentina didn’t win.
The Albiceleste had struggled through the qualifiers and began the match sixth on the table (automatic qualification was reserved for the top four teams). After conceding in the first minute of the game to make matters worse, Messi was on hand to bail the team out with the hat-trick.
This secured Argentina’s 12th consecutive qualification for the Mundial. Messi has been part of the last four. His achievements with Barcelona show how much of a difference he can make in the team. So, for every time he has filed out for the national side in a competition, they have been tipped as favorites to lift the trophy. Such is his influence. It is this influence for Barcelona that has enabled him to win everything there is to win in club football.
Mundial: a different game
But the World Cup has been a different ball game.
Germany 2006 was Messi’s first outing in the competition. He came on as a substitute in the second game to become Argentina’s youngest-ever player in the tournament at just 18. A few minutes after his introduction he gave an assist for German Crespo’s goal and later grabbed his first in the competition as well in a 6-0 routing of Serbia & Montenegro. The team made it to the quarter-final but was knocked out by Germany on penalties after the match ended 1-1.
By 2010, Messi had become a dominant figure in world football having been crowned Ballon d’Or winner for 2009. At just 23, he had become his country’s star man at the World Cup in South Africa. Coached by his mentor, Diego Maradona, under whose captaincy the country last won the tournament, it seemed like the perfect combination for success.
Nothing short of gold was expected from the group back home. But four Messi shots saved by Nigerian goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, in Argentina’s first match signaled a bad omen. Gabriel Heinze’s header did settle the contest though, helping the team scale over the Africans 1-0.
The Ballon d’Or winner was, however, in no-nonsense mood in the next match against South Korea as he assisted all four of his team’s goals in a 4-1 win. After two more wins to get to the quarter-final, they came face-to-face with an old enemy, Germany. The ruthless Germans thrashed them 4-0 this time around. The Barcelona star failed to score even a single goal in that edition of the competition.
A history of near-misses
But if he had introduced himself to the world in the two previous tournaments, 2014 was indeed the time for him to rule the world. Now wearing the armband, he showed signs of that early on as he opened his account for the tournament with a fine goal against Bosnia & Herzegovina. Another strike against Iran clinched the win in the second group game securing qualification for the next round. But that did not stop him from putting two past Nigeria in the final group game to maintain a 100 percent record in the edition.
Wins over Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands landed the team in the final. Unfortunately, they were to meet their nemesis in Germany who emerged 1-0 winners.
After three near misses losing both finals of the Copa America to Chile on either side of the 2014 World Cup which they lost to Germany, again, Messi and Argentina had come full circle. He was devastated. Hence his decision to quit after the Copa final in 2016.
But the five-time Ballon d’Or winner decided to give national service one more shot in Russia. It turned out to be a national embarrassment as La Albiceleste failed to find their footing. After struggling to qualify from a group made up of Iceland, Croatia, and Nigeria, the team was booted out of the competition in the Round of 16 by France.
Unfortunately for Leo, he is already on the wrong side of 30. By the time the next World Cup comes around, he will be 35 and likely past his prime. Former Barcelona teammate and club captain, Andreas Iniesta, retired from the national team immediately after Spain were eliminated in Russia. Messi needs to admit, this was not to be and quit the national team for good. That will be the best for both parties. Over-reliance on him is now costing the national team progress in competitions as seen in Russia. La Albiceleste needs a new beginning – without Messi.
He can, however, leave with the consolation that he has at least won honours for the nation in lower categories. An Olympic gold medal won in 2008 and a U-20 World Cup winner’s medal is a collection he can be proud of.