It wasn’t easy to spot him from the crowds of people in the tunnel below New Jersey’s Met Life Stadium, but the lights from the television helped. His obvious anger, however, was impossible to ignore. Lionel Messi, among the handful of great players to bless the world of football, had had enough.
For three years in a row, he invested a significant part of his too-short summer trying to win a major international championship with and for his native Argentina, and each time he came as close as possible without succeeding.
“The national team is finished for me,” he told reporters. “That’s.”
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This was five years ago. And yet, on Monday night Messi was in Brazil breaking Argentina’s record for international matches with his 148th appearance, this in a 4-1 victory over Bolivia in the Copa América. The victory, which included two more goals from Messi, secured first place in Group A and prepared Albiceleste with a quarter-final match on Saturday at 9 pm against Ecuador on FS1 and Univisión. He is risking one more chance to achieve the only honor in sport that has escaped him, to conquer the only mission that has broken his heart so many times: a trophy with the national team.
“At times when we have seen him play for Argentina, there is a feeling that he is overwhelmed. Not overwhelmed, because he is Messi, but burdened by this continuous type of pressure and expectation of having that moment when he lifts the trophy, “Alexi Lalas, principal analyst of the Fox Sports study and member of the Hall of Fame, told Sporting News. from US Soccer. “Look, he’s going to become one of the best players to ever play the game no matter what happens. But I think he would like to check the box, but I think many of us who love, respect and appreciate everything he has done just want him to have that moment.
“I’m not necessarily sure that will ever happen, and I’m not sure that will happen in this Copa América, but he rides again in this quest. I don’t know if it means more to him or it means more to us that that happens. “
Having witnessed his heartbreak that Sunday night five years ago in Jersey, I can say that it clearly means more to Messi.
A superstar at FC Barcelona almost from the moment of his introduction in 2006, Messi owns four Champions League titles, 10 La Liga titles, the Club World Cup and seven in Spain’s Copa del Rey.
With his national team, however, there have been many victories, but not in the most important games. There was an Olympic gold medal in 2008, but Olympic men’s soccer is not a major national team competition. At the highest level, he has played in four World Cups and five previous Americas Cups, including the 2016 Centennial special event held in the United States in which Argentina lost the championship match to Chile, for the second year in a row, on a penalty shoot-out.
That was the game that led to Messi’s declaration that he was done with the international game just two days after his 29th birthday. He has played 37 international matches since then.
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“I think it says: I can’t leave you,” said Lalas, who has been working in the studio for Fox’s coverage of the America’s Cup. “He has been raised in this incubator and this world cocoon of Barcelona from a young age, and the inevitable but continuous comparison and contrast with Diego Maradona… I think he has grown in role and responsibility. I see him enjoying it more.
“That is a fascinating kind of dynamic for one of the great players in the world, to be doing that with an Argentine team that is not great but has a lot of talent. Whatever team Messi plays for, he will be a focal point. And yet they have not been able to put it all together. And right now, looking like Brazil, it would be a surprise, a wonderful surprise, but it would be a surprise if Messi and company could surpass Brazil ”.
Brazil won their first three group matches by a combined 9-1 margin, then played mostly reserves, reserves that included Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, Fabinho and Alisson, but still, in a pointless game against Ecuador that ended in a tie 1-1.
And Brazil has a home advantage due to COVID problems that forced the tournament to be moved from Argentina. However, that may have put more pressure on Brazil to win than Messi is carrying at the moment.
From the moment of their 7-1 loss at home to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals, Brazil’s stature as a colossus in world play has deteriorated. That was followed with a 2018 World Cup quarter-final exit in a 2-1 loss to Belgium. The 2019 Copa América victory helped restore some respect, but since no South American team has won the World Cup since 2002, more will be needed to put the world on alert. A second consecutive Cup title would do that, and with players like Neymar, Casemiro and Danilo in the lineup, it should probably happen.
“For Brazil, anything less than a victory would be considered a failure,” Lalas said. “Argentina lost to Brazil in Brazil right now, given the differences and the dynamics between these two teams, I don’t think anyone sees it as an Argentine failure. So yeah, I guess that gives Messi an opportunity where there is nothing to lose. And if we look back in history, Brazil has lost very, very important games at Maracana, which is where the final is going to be ”.
Messi has scored 75 goals for Argentina, which is the ninth among men in the game’s history and only a handful of goals from the top five. He has been named the winner of the Ballon d’Or as the best player in the world six times. Few players have accomplished so much individually and collectively, but that hole in their résumé will exist until they do, or until Argentina is truly “done” for Messi.
Lalas has followed Messi closely throughout this tournament and sees fundamental changes in his performance. Messi is sinking deeper into midfield to gain possession and help establish control of the game, which some, including Argentine great Hernán Crespo, have found problematic.
“The way he backs up, it’s almost reminiscent of a quarterback when they go into that pocket, and they can see everything up front: I can go here, I can go here, I can go here, or I can run and attack,” he said. Lalas. “I kind of like him. I think you’re wasting some of his unique ability to dribble players and dribble at high speed and put defenses on their heels when you get him close to goal.
“So I like the way it has evolved. Sometimes he forces things and wants them to happen. If you are going to have someone to force the issue, you could do much worse than Messi.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.