As the man who’s often called the best player in the world turns 33, we look back at his history of national team disappointment and examine what’s between Lionel Messi and international success.
“I gave serious thought to quitting, but my love for my country and this shirt is too great,” said Lionel Messi, going back on his decision to retire from Argentina duty in August 2016. From the outside, his love of representing his national team seems counter-intuitive. Booed by his own fans, accused of selecting the team himself and compared to Diego Maradona at every turn, the Argentina shirt has looked heavier on Messi’s shoulders than on those of any other player.
Messi was making a U-turn on his decision to retire after Argentina were defeated in the 2016 Copa América final. This was Messi’s fourth such tournament – his fourth failure to deliver. Individually, it had proven a relatively successful three weeks for the little magician, scoring a hat-trick and breaking the all-time goalscoring record set by the legendary Gabriel Batistuta.
But for many fans, the now second-placed goalscorer evokes warmer memories than the first. It was Batistuta’s brace against Mexico that had sealed the 1993 Copa América for Argentina, the team’s last major trophy.
To grasp the weight of expectation on Messi, it must be understood that this burden is not only connected to his status as the world’s best, but as his country’s best. Numerous legendary players have faced the pressure of trying to break the spell and deliver the first trophy to the country since 1993.
In fact, it was these iconic players of the previous generation that took the brunt of the blame for Argentina’s lack of success during Messi’s early international career. Before the spotlight was entirely on the diminutive dribbler, he watched as the finger-pointing and insults were directed at figures such as Javier Zanetti and Juan Román Riquelme after the unsuccessful 2006 World Cup campaign. Messi was the new kid on the block and, despite his limited minutes, impressed greatly as Argentina progressed to the quarter-finals. The team were subsequently eliminated on penalties by the host nation, Germany, and many fans derided the coach’s decision not to summon the teenager from the bench.
18 – Lionel Messi made his World Cup debut against Serbia in 2006, aged 18 years & 357 days – he remains the only teenager to both score and assist in the same World Cup match since 1966, doing so in just 13 minutes after coming off the bench. Glimpse. #OptaWCYears pic.twitter.com/nVjkYzYao6
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 13, 2020
The following year saw Messi make his Copa América debut in Venezuela. Once again, Argentina selected a squad with a wealth of talent and experience for the 2007 tournament, with Messi growing in stature for club and country after scoring 14 goals in 26 league matches for Barcelona. La Albiceleste cruised through the competition, before being facing old rivals Brazil in the final. Messi started the match in a strike partnership with Carlos Tevez, with enganche Riquelme behind them.
Messi’s struggles to perform in this system were well-documented and the Tevez’s reputation as el jugador del pueblo – the people’s player – were in stark contrast to the somewhat alien relationship Messi had with the fans.
Truthfully, it was the No. 10 role that Riquelme was occupying that the dynamic youngster coveted. The team were humbled 3-0 by Brazil in the final, something of an embarrassment given the comparative lack of names in the Seleção squad.
Amongst these newcomers was right-back Dani Alves, at the time plying his trade for Sevilla. Just before half-time, he whipped in a cross that deceived Roberto Ayala, causing him to turn it into his own net for 2-0, before Alves smashed a shot past a despairing Roberto Abbondanzieri to seal the game with 20 minutes to go.
Messi could only watch, hands on hips in despair, blissfully unaware that he and that skinny full-back would go on to form one of football’s most famous partnerships on Barcelona’s right wing. But in that moment, the concept of the pair dancing past defenders and performing laser-guided one-twos seemed an eternity away. Messi could only look on as the nation’s press singled out the star players of the team for criticism with ruthless precision.
2008 arguably saw the highlight of Messi’s international career to date. After a highly publicised spat between Barcelona and the Argentine Football Association was cooled following Barca coach Pep Guardiola’s sympathetic intervention, Messi was finally given permission to take part in the Olympics in Bejiing. The tournament went well for the forward, who partnered his close friend Sergio Agüero up front. Standing between Argentina and Olympic Gold was a semi-final date with Brazil, offering something of a rematch for those players that had been so roundly embarrassed in the previous summer’s Copa América.
Some pundits also noted that the match would see Messi going head to head with the player Barcelona had just sold to avoid his antics tainting their prized talent: Ronaldinho. Messi grasped those opportunities with both hands and proceeded to taunt the Brazilian defence all game, first forcing a trio of defenders to swarm him in the build-up to the second goal, and later threading a deft ball through to his friend Agüero, who won a penalty.
As Riquelme dispatched the spot kick with ease – his final international goal – Argentina ran out 3-0 winners in a mirroring of the Copa América final a year earlier. The torch and the responsibility as the nation’s best player had very evidently been passed from the Boca Juniors star to the Barcelona boy. In the Gold Medal match against Nigeria, Messi again turned provider to assist another young star, Angel di Maria, for a delightful chip which would bring home that coveted prize for Argentina.
Lionel Messi at the 2008 Olympics is something else. His assist to Di Maria vs. the Netherlands remains one of my favorite ever assists. To have that vision at that age, underrated. https://t.co/z1yJUAhCTA
— Roy Nemer (@RoyNemer) December 21, 2019
If this is to be remembered as the summit of Messi’s international career, then what followed could be described as a steady stumbling back down the hill. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw coach Maradona catering to his star player’s tactical preferences, but the team suffered a demolition at the hands of Germany in the quarter-finals.
A 2011 Copa América on home soil proved an ugly affair as Argentina were booed off the pitch by their own supporters in their group-stage match against Colombia. Messi was involved in an on-pitch clash with teammate Nicolás Burdisso and, when the team were once again knocked out on penalties to Uruguay, the star was hounded by the Argentine media for not replicating his scintillating form for Barcelona with the national team.
Following the disappointment of the latest Copa América exit, Argentina replaced head coach Sergio Batista with Alejandro Sabella. Sabella pushed Messi into a role that was nominally on the right side of the team’s attack, with license to roam as he saw fit. Under Sabella, Messi scored ten goals in 14 qualifying matches for the upcoming World Cup. The new coach also entrusted his star player with the responsibility of captaincy. Along with a core of other senior players, Messi was expected to perform and lead for his country.
The 2014 World Cup is perhaps the occasion that still haunts the La Liga star most to this day. Messi’s performances were influential throughout, but with his goals drying up in the knockout phases of the competition, the decision to award him the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament was questioned.
“It’s not right when someone wins something that he shouldn’t have won just because of some marketing plan,” said Maradona on Argentinian TV.
Messi was pictured with a thousand-yard stare after the match, clutching his award with all the enthusiasm of a funeral director. The real prize had once again eluded him, with teammate Gonzalo Higuaín particularly culpable with his sloppy finishing in the final against Germany. Disgraced former FIFA president, Sepp Blatter – who handed Messi the Golden Ball – said he overheard the star berating himself. “He was saying over and over again: ‘The best, but not the champion.'”
🎙️Sepp Blatter (former FIFA president) [La Nacion] : "At the 2014 World Cup final presentation ceremony, Messi was talking to himself. "He said to himself over and over again: "Salí pibe, este lugar no es para vos…" : "The best but not the champion…" pic.twitter.com/HV0ys46OTl
— BarçaTimes (@BarcaTimes) June 15, 2019
The World Cup saw Messi receive criticism for not scoring the decisive goals in the latter stages. Coach Sabella would defend the 27-year-old and saluted his willingness to play slightly deeper: “I commend Messi for the World Cup he had. He put the group first, before the individual, and he personally sacrificed himself for the benefit of the team,” he told Radio La Red.
Not everyone was as impressed with his performances and as Javier Mascherano, his teammate for club and country, impressed with his defensive displays, some hailed him as Argentina’s true hero: “Perhaps, then, the real star of Argentina’s campaign has been Mascherano, ‘the little boss’ who keeps coming up big for his country when it really matters,” said BBC Sport’s Tim Vickery, before the final in the Maracana.
2015 offered another chance for silverware with that year’s Copa América, hosted by Chile. It was their team, spearheaded by Alexis Sánchez, another former teammate of Messi, that Argentina would face in the final. A tense affair saw Higuaín waste a gilt-edged chance in the dying seconds of normal time, after Messi had twisted and turned past two defenders in a flash. It was to be heartbreak again as Higuaín and Éver Banega missed their penalties after Messi had converted his, seeing Chile take home the title on home soil.
The following year, Argentina made it three consecutive defeats in major finals by losing – once again – to Chile in a repeat of the previous year’s final. The Centenario, taking place in New Jersey, was a match where many of the Chilean team’s 22 fouls were crunching tackles on the world’s best player. It seemed Messi couldn’t carry the ball more than ten yards without being poleaxed by the midfield of Marcelo Díaz, Arturo Vidal and Charles Aránguiz.
As the match finished 0-0 again, it was he this time who skied his penalty high above the crossbar and ended the night in tears as Chile retained their title.
Frustration over his consistent failures with La Albiceleste led to Messi announcing his international retirement: “I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion,” he said. But after public outcry in Argentina, a Twitter trend urging him not to go (#NoTeVayasLeo) and even an appeal from the country’s President, Mauricio Macri, he reversed his decision to retire just a week later.
With his emphatic declaration of love for pulling on the white and sky blue shirt, Messi appeared to have helped quell the theory that his heart was never with Argentina. After all, as author Grant Farred wrote: ‘Winning for Barça and not replicating that level of success for Argentina fed the notion that Messi was Catalan first, last and perhaps always.’
A small part of Leo Messi must have believed that to lift a trophy wearing that oh-so heavy shirt would dispel these rumours completely.
A thoroughly unremarkable team – that Messi had dragged through a difficult qualifying group – stepped out at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. There by virtue of a hat-trick from the little magician in the decisive match in Ecuador, the team played with a nervous tension and lack of forcefulness that one would expect from a minnow, lucky to be at the competition at all. Messi scored an iconic goal against Nigeria in the group stage, plucking the ball out of the air with one of his famous Velcro touches and stroking it home with his infamously weaker foot. The team were eliminated by France in the first knockout round, with Messi’s delightful assist for his old friend Agüero in the dying embers of the game proving too little, too late.
This time, coached by Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina were the epitome of a one-man team. The midfield laboured through the tournament, lacking the thrust and flair of previous Argentina sides and forcing Messi to drop deeper and deeper to receive possession. Often, he looked the loneliest man on the pitch as his teammates gazed at him, willing him to produce a rabbit out of the hat at every moment.
World Cup 2018. Scoring 1 goal the entire tournament, Messi tries to cover it up with an assist and a deflection vs France but it doesn’t work out as Mbappé shows Messi how to play in big games. pic.twitter.com/npAHiKwroG
— Jay 🌧 (@Jay_RMA) May 22, 2020
Sampaoli was out and Lionel Scaloni – who was alongside Messi in the 2006 World Cup squad – was in for the 2019 Copa América. Following a disappointing World Cup, expectations had cooled over Argentina and the team duly met them. Messi admitted himself that his performances were below par and the old enemy, Brazil, eliminated his side in the semi-finals. Argentina was then exposed to a different side of their star player.
Messi was scathing in his criticism of the pitch condition at the tournament, as well as the standard of refereeing. This rebrand as a straight-talking loudmouth was capped off with a red card in the third-place match against Chile. This was only his second-ever dismissal, the first coming on his debut against Hungary. In the mixed zone after the match, he danced around the topic of corruption with considerably less grace than he does around defenders. “There is no doubt, the whole thing is set up for Brazil,” he asserted. For his comments, CONMEBOL fined him heavily and banned him from international football for three months.
A career of few highs and many lows with the national team is the exact inverse of his club brilliance with Barcelona. The most talented footballer in the world has yet to crack the code of success in his home country and some still perceive him as an outsider. He told Argentinian Radio in 2019: “Many people said I should not return. Family, friends. My 6-year-old (asked me) ‘Why do they kill you in Argentina, daddy?'”.
After all, Messi has had countless opportunities to walk away from Argentina duty and has thus far declined, opting to battle on against a tide of pressure and drag his team as far as he can. At the 2015 Ballon d’Or Gala, Messi won the award for the fifth time. Interviewed on stage by James Richardson, he was asked plainly whether he’d swap his five Ballons d’Or for one World Cup trophy. “I’ve always said that the team achievements are more important,” he said. With the Argentina team in its current state, those team achievements may continue to elude even the world’s best
Connor Spake is on Twitter