Four years ago in Brazil, Lionel Messi trudged off the pitch at the Maracana after his Argentina team had been beaten in extra time by Germany. The World Cup trophy had been within touching distance, yet a glum glance was all he was allowed.
Later, he held the Golden Ball for the World Cup’s best player, but it did not interest him at all. Messi wanted the game’s greatest prize and he came close, so close, to claiming it. Since, he has admitted that he thinks about that match every single day.
But if losing a World Cup final was considered to be a failure, it was a glorious one. And in the next two years, the Barca forward also lost two Copa America finals with Argentina. Again, he had been so close.
There is no glory in this latest failure, though. Argentina were thrashed 3-0 by Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday night and Jorge Sampaoli’s side are now on the brink of crashing out of the competition in the group stages.
If Iceland beat Nigeria on Friday, Argentina will no longer depend on themselves to make the last 16 and next Tuesday’s final group game against the Super Eagles could even be Messi’s last at a World Cup. If it is, it will certainly not be the way he will have wanted to bow out.
“I just feel so sorry for Lionel Messi,” the forward’s friend and former Argentina team-mate Pablo Zabaleta told the BBC. “This was his last chance to win something with Argentina, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him retire from international football after this. He’ll be so disappointed and it’s another four years until Qatar.”
By the time the next World Cup comes around, Messi – who is 31 on Sunday – will be almost 35 and even if he is still playing, it is unlikely to be at his current level. Therefore, this World Cup in Russia may well have represented his final shot at glory.
And it is not necessarily over yet, with victory over Nigeria meaning Argentina can still sneak through to the last 16. Given the current climate surrounding Sampaoli and the players, however, it would appear to be a tough ask even if other results do go their way.
And if Argentina can somehow advance, their team does not look equipped to challenge the strongest sides in this tournament, such as Spain and Brazil. With Messi, there is always a chance, but there is a real sense that the Albiceleste have not made the most of their star man.
“All of the decline in recent times has been hidden by this incomparable genius,” Argentina’s former World Cup winning midfielder Osvaldo Ardiles wrote on Twitter. “We were lucky he was born in Argentina, but even for him it was too much at the end of the day. Leo: thanks so much for everything and all the best of luck for the future!”
In 2006, Messi was the world’s most exciting young player but was used sparingly by coach Jose Pekerman in Germany and was left on the bench as Argentina crashed out of the tournament to the hosts on penalties in the quarter-finals.
Four years later, the Barcelona forward was the world’s finest footballer, yet even he could not inspire a team coached by Diego Maradona, which was tactically exposed by Germany in a 4-0 thrashing in South Africa.
In Brazil, Alejandro Sabella’s side fared much better and Messi, on the back of an injury-interrupted season with Barcelona, almost led the team to the trophy. With that World Cup taking place in South America and Leo at his peak, it looked like his best chance.
It probably was. Because now, after a chaotic qualifying campaign under three different coaches, a squad full of players in decline and some shambolic strategies from Sampaoli, the forward’s World Cup legacy has been left hanging on a thread.
Having missed a penalty against Iceland and barely been given the ball against Croatia, it is all coming to a sad end for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner with his national team and he has been powerless to prevent it this time, the huge burden all apparent in his body language even before the game on Thursday.
“You have to find him,” 1986 champion Jorge Valdano said. “You have to abuse him. Argentina did not have the collective intelligence to do that. Messi needs the ball at his feet. If he doesn’t have that, it is difficult to see his virtues.”
Indeed it is. And when he is no longer around, Argentina will wonder why they did not do more to take advantage of those tremendous talents.