It was not easy to spot him through the crush of people in the tunnel underneath New Jersey’s Met Life Stadium, but the television lights helped. His obvious rage, though, was impossible to miss. Lionel Messi, among the handful of greatest players to bless the world of soccer, had had enough.
For three years in a row, he invested a significant portion of his too-short summer in the attempt 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 it.”
MORE: Complete Copa America TV and match schedule
This was five years ago. And yet there was Messi on Monday night in Brazil breaking Argentina’s record for caps with his 148th appearance, this in a 4-1 victory over Bolivia at Copa America. The victory, which included two more goals from Messi, secured first place in Group A and set up the Albiceleste with a quarterfinal game Saturday at 9 p.m. against Ecuador on FS1 and Univision. He is taking still another chance at achieving the continental honor that has eluded him, and one that has broken his heart on so many occasions.
“At times when we’ve seen him play for Argentina, there is the sense that he’s burdened. Not overwhelmed, because he’s Messi, but burdened with this continuous type of pressure and expectation to have that moment where he raises the trophy,” Alexi Lalas, Fox Sports lead studio analyst and a U.S. Soccer hall of famer, told Stock Market Pioneer. “Look, he’s going to go down as one of the greatest players ever to play the game regardless of what happens. But I think he would like to check the box, but I think a lot of us that love him and respect and appreciate everything he’s done just want him to have that moment.
“I’m not necessarily certain that’s ever going to come, and I’m not certainly sure that’s going to happen in this Copa America, but he rides again in this quest. I don’t know if it means more to him or it means more to us to have that happen.”
Having witnessed his anguish on that Sunday night five years ago in Jersey, I can say it’s apparent it means more to Messi.
A superstar at FC Barcelona almost since the moment of his introduction in 2006, Messi owns four Champions League titles, 10 La Liga titles, the Club World Cup titles and seven in Spain’s Copa del Rey.
With his national team, though, there has been plenty of winning, but not in the biggest games. There was an Olympic gold medal in 2008, but Olympic men’s soccer is not a senior national team competition. At the highest level, he has played in four World Cups and five previous Copa Americas, including the special 2016 Centenario event staged across the United States in which Argentina lost the championship game to Chile, for the second consecutive year, in a penalty shootout.
That was the game that led to Messi’s declaration he was done with the international game just two days past his 29th birthday. He has earned 37 caps since.
MORE: Messi gets surprise birthday wakeup call
“I think it says: I can’t quit you,” said Lalas, who has been working the studio for Fox’s Copa America coverage. “He has been raised in this incubator and this world cocoon of Barcelona from a young age, and the inevitable but ongoing compare-and-contrast with Diego Maradona … I think he’s grown into the role and responsibility. I see him enjoying it more.
“That’s a fascinating type of dynamic to have for one of the great players of the world, to be doing that with an Argentine team that isn’t great but has plenty of talent. Any team that Messi plays on, he’s going to be a focal point. And yet they haven’t been able to get it all together. And right now, with the way Brazil looks, it would be a surprise – a wonderful surprise – but it would be a surprise if Messi and company were able to overcome Brazil.”
Brazil won its first three group games by a combined 9-1 margin, then played mostly reserves – reserves that included Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, Fabinho and Alisson, but still – in a meaningless game against Ecuador that ended in a 1-1 draw.
And Brazil has a home advantage because of COVID issues that forced the tournament to be moved from Argentina. It’s possible, though, that has placed more pressure on Brazil to win than Messi is carrying at the moment.
From the moment of their 7-1 defeat at home to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals, Brazil’s stature as a colossus in the world game has deteriorated. That was followed with a quarterfinal exit from the 2018 World Cup in a 2-1 loss to Belgium. Victory at the 2019 Copa America helped restore some respect, but with no South American team having won the World Cup since 2002, it’s going to take more to put the globe on notice. A second consecutive title at Copa would do that, and with such players as Neymar, Casemiro and Danilo in the lineup, it probably should happen.
“For Brazil, anything less than a win would be considered a failure,” Lalas said. “Argentina losing to Brazil in Brazil in this moment, given the differences and the dynamics between these two teams, I don’t think anybody is going to look at it as a failure from Argentina. 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 big games in the Maracana, which is where the final is going to be.”
Messi has scored 75 goals for Argentina, which is ninth among men in the game’s history and only a handful of strikes from the top five. He has been named winner of the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player six times. Few players ever have achieved as much individually and collectively, but that hole on his resume will exist until it doesn’t, or until Argentina truly is “finished” for Messi.
Lalas has watched Messi closely during this tournament and sees fundamental changes in his performance. Messi is dropping deeper into the midfield to gain possession and help establish control of the game, which some, including Argentine great Hernan Crespo, have viewed as problematic.
“The way that he drops back, it’s almost reminiscent of a quarterback when they drop into that pocket, and they’re able to see everything in front: I can go here, I can go here, I can go here – or I can run and attack it,” Lalas said. “I kind of like it. I think you’re kind of wasting some of his unique ability to dribble through players and to dribble at speed and put defenses on their heels when you put him closer to the goal.
“So I like the way he’s evolved. At times he forces things, and he wants things to happen. If you’re going to have someone force the issue, you could do a whole lot worse than Messi.”