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Argentina

Messi and Argentina: is this the end for the Barça star?

Once again Argentina fell short at international level and the captain's patience can only last so long - 2020 may be the final chance to add the one thing his career lacks.

Messi and Argentina: is this the end for the Barça star?
MIKE STOBE AFP

The greatest of all time… it is the eternal question and one that can be only be measured in a subjective way. Was Pelé simply the finest footballer the world has ever seen, or the scorer of 1,000-odd goals in friendlies? Was Maradona the most skillful player ever to balance a ball on his foot or would George Best have showed him up had they lived in the age of freestyle?

For present-day fans, tangible is king. A player can only wear the crown if he drags his side single-handed to glory, as Maradona did in 1986 and Cristiano Ronaldo would probably have no issue with claiming he managed at Euro 2016, from the touchline if needs be. So where does that leave Leo Messi, the perennial international bridesmaid, after Argentina’s latest failure to add to their laurels at the Copa América?

Brazil’s 2-0 victory prevented the Albiceleste going through the final of the Copa for the 29th time and may just prove to be the straw that breaks the back of Messi’s international career. The Barcelona star is accustomed to success at club level – often dragging his team to victory on his diminutive frame – but he simply cannot repeat the trick on the international stage as his predecessor in the number 10 shirt did in Mexico, with a little helping hand from God.

The problem may lie with the Argentine Football Association, which has come in for its fair share of flak as the national side, as powerful a religion as exists in Argentina, lurch from one disaster to another. Argentina were woeful at the last World Cup and not much better in Brazil this summer. Messi had a reasonable game against Brazil, hitting a post and providing the driving force for much of Argentina’s attacking intent. But it was not enough. It never is. And to think he could have played for Spain during the golden era from 2008 to 2012: two European Championships and a World Cup would do the trick. 

Messi to retire from Argentina duty again?

Messi has now participated in four World Cups and five Copas América. On four occasions Argentina have contested the final (World Cup 2014 and Copa América 2007, 2015 and 2016). After the most recent, the Copa América Centenario when Argentina were beaten by Chile on penalties, Messi missing his spot-kick in the shoot-out, the Barça star retired.

"I tried my hardest. It has been four finals, I want more than anyone to win a title with the national team, but unfortunately, it did not happen... I think this is best for everyone, firstly for me and for a lot of people that wish this. The team has ended for me, a decision made."

A decision then revoked, after a personal plea from Argentinean Prsident Mauricio Macri, the unveiling of a statue in Buenos Aires and an outpouring of public grief. But this latest disappointment may be the true end. Not because Messi cannot save Argentina, but because Argentina appear incapable of saving themselves. Even without star player Neymar, Brazil can function as a unit. That Argentina have whittled through nine coaches during Messi’s career tells its own story.

There is hope, for Messi and for Argentina. With the Copa América format having undergone almost as many changes as Argentina’s coaching staff in recent years, there will be a fourth Copa in five years in 2020. The host nations will be Argentina and Colombia. Messi may not make Qatar 2022. He almost certainly won’t be in Ecuador in 2024. Next year may represent the last chance for Messi to add a senior international trophy to the greatest of all time debate. If he does it on his own, Maradona’s mantle might finally at least be shared. Given the current state of Argentinean football, he’ll probably have to.