Why Lionel Messi will leave Argentina at their lowest point
It is possible that Argentina will exit the 2018 FIFA World Cup on Tuesday. The decisive Group D match against Nigeria takes place at the Saint Petersburg Stadium and could mark the end of a significant era in the history of the Argentine national team.
Lionel Messi turned 31 this week, but the situation for his team in Russia has left little reason to celebrate. A laboured draw with Iceland was followed by a comprehensive defeat to Croatia, and the importance of the match against Nigeria serves only to emphasise the failings of Jorge Sampaoli's side.
Sampaoli has proved to be a significant part of the problem for Argentina, and the manager was clearly suffering under the weight of expectation as calculated and clinical Croatia produced a superb display, ultimately embarrassing Argentina in their convincing 3-0 win.
A troubled team struggling to hide their true emotions to the outside world, Messi himself looked uneasy as the teams lined-up prior to the match against Croatia. A lack of confidence has brought a lack of quality in the performances from their more experienced stars, and while Messi has rescued them in the past, he will not be around to do so in the future.
End of an era
This will be Messi's last World Cup. Now 31, he no longer needs the demand of international football. It is a demand multiplied by the cultural expectancy of Argentina. Both Sampaoli and Messi are displaying the traits of individuals saddled with unwanted pressure, and both will depart from their international roles at the end of the tournament.
And there is a very real chance that the tournament could end for Argentina on Tuesday. The quality of the opposition is not the most important factor, as the toughest opponent for Argentina at this time is themselves. To win, they must change the attitude and culture within the squad, and only then will they have the chance to progress.
Nigeria are an erratic and inconsistent team. They have attacking flair and defensive failings. They have their own pressure to succeed in this vital match, and will relish the chance to take on Argentina in their current shaken state. If Argentina cannot change their approach, Nigeria will smell blood straight from the kick-off.
Messi announced his international retirement following the penalty shoot-out defeat to Chile in the 2016 Copa America final. Two years after Argentina's defeat at the 2014 World Cup final, the continued disappointment was proving too much. However, he returned to lead his country again, claiming his love for the shirt was too great to leave behind.
Shadow of the past
But that was a different time, and the Argentina team that Messi leads in Russia is a shadow of their former selves. There is no belief, and the only expectancy within the squad is of impending disappointment. Chastised from all angles as pundits and former players leave nothing behind in their criticism, this is a team that the players cannot wait to escape from.
Messi's heart belongs to Barcelona, and while he has embraced the pride of representing his country throughout his distinguished career, it has become a professional obligation for him, and one that he could now do without. Like many great nations that have fallen on difficult times, Argentina now need to regroup and rebuild.
And Lionel Messi will not be a part of this process, and neither will Sampaoli. Reports of a changing room revolt against the manager may have been exaggerated, but they are not without substance, as this is clearly a squad in disarray. Messi has covered their failings in recent years, but it has clearly taken its toll on him, and a lack of leadership from the manager appears to have left him empty.
The match against Nigeria on Tuesday could prove to be one of the most significant in the recent history of Argentina. Victory would only postpone the inevitable, but should it result in their exit from the tournament, it will also mark the end of an era. Messi has a passion for his country, and while it will hurt him, his departure is necessary in order to accelerate the deeper changes that are now required.
Messi's contribution to the game means that he deserves to lift the World Cup with Argentina in the same way that Diego Maradona did before him. The similarities between the two, and their respective influence on Argentina, are well documented. However, Messi will never be revered in the same way as Maradona, even if he emulates his achievement of 1986.
It is a fact that Messi is well-aware of. Maradona was the first Argentine genius, a figure that the nation could relate to, who defied the odds to succeed. Messi followed a different path, but while his own genius is unique, the comparisons with Maradona will prevent him from ever holding a higher status than the player who inevitably influenced his own game.
One day in the future, Barcelona will say goodbye to Lionel Messi, and it will be a celebration for all that he has achieved, clouded only by the fact his genius will not be witnessed at the Camp Nou again. Messi's departure from international football will be a very different situation, and he will be remembered as the headline figure in an underachieving team.
Moments of individual brilliance have defined Lionel Messi's career to date, and the state of this current Argentina side dictates that another performance is needed if this chapter in his career is to continue any further. Sadly, such a moment would only delay their inevitable exit from the competition, and it seems that World Cup glory may have already passed Lionel Messi by.