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Lionel Messi's Sisyphean Task Highlights Argentina's Bleak Road to Recovery

Rohith Nair
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Editor's Pick
1.25K   //    05 Jul 2018, 17:53 IST

FBL-WC-2018-MATCH39-NGR-ARG
Lionel Messi could play for Argentina at one more World Cup - but will they even qualify?

In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus was a mortal who dared to challenge Zeus and claim that he was cleverer than the King of the Gods. The punishment that it entailed was for Sisyphus to roll a massive boulder up a very steep hill - only for it to roll away from him when he neared the top.

It consigned Sisyphus to an eternity of trying to accomplish an ultimately pointless endeavour. It is the same with Lionel Messi when he wears the famous blue-and-white stripes that form Argentina's iconic jersey.

Messi is no mere mortal. But he is no God either - at least not for La Albiceleste. No matter what he does, he fails to win over many of the people of the South American nation that has long been bereft of a major title since 1993.

Messi was born only a year after Diego Maradona dragged Argentina to a World Cup win in Mexico. El Dios has since been immortalised and celebrated by Argentinians - even despite his drug habits ending his international career in disgrace.


But Messi, the poster boy of football and arguably one of the all-time greats, is pilloried by the Argentine public - condemned to be an outsider no matter what he does to bring glory to a nation that has not come any closer to winning anything of note for 25 years.

A World Cup for Argentina fans to forget

2018 FIFA World Cup: Nigeria vs Iceland
Argentina fans were left rooting for other teams so their own country could qualify

When Argentina had drawn the first World Cup game against Iceland and lost their second to Croatia, fans who had literally travelled halfway around the world were in tears. Young and old, die-hard fans to casual observers; there was simply no reason to smile. Just a sense of foreboding that it could be worse than their 2002 group stage exit.

Frustrations boiled over and fans even went to the extent of pointing an accusing finger at Messi for what they perceived to be a lack of effort against Croatia. Yes, he didn't work as hard but the malaise in that squad ran deep. Very deep.

Also read: Who is the real villain here: Jorge Sampaoli, the AFA... or Lionel Messi?

"I don't understand it," said a distraught 20-something fan who had spent thousands of Pesos to fly to Russia and watch his country play. "At Barcelona, he is one of the best players in the world. But when he wears this shirt (clutching his own Argentina jersey)..."

The voice simply trails off and the reporter understandably ends his questioning right there before wishing them well for the third game. It is an opinion shared by a massive fanbase that has always asked the same question.

Why can't Messi perform for Argentina like he does for Barcelona? Of course, there are thousands of reasons. But to the passionate Argentinian fan, the answer is not important. The fact that the question needs to be asked is.

The difference is huge. Messi has won 32 trophies with Barcelona but just an Under-20 World Cup and an Olympic gold medal with Argentina. That he has reached major finals in recent years are not just mere footnotes but beacons of failure that shine a harsh limelight on his international career while the rest of the team hides in his shadow.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH39-NGR-ARG
For a brief moment, the heavy burden was off Messi's shoulders

With their backs against the wall, Messi and Argentina did manage to get a result against Nigeria to qualify for the Round of 16. Three magical touches had seen to that as Messi plucked a ball out of the St Petersburg sky to bring down an Ever Banega lob before firing it past the goalkeeper.

However, Messi was effectively silenced again when they met a mighty France side in the next round. Playing as a false-nine, it worked in Les Bleus' favour as N'Golo Kante kept him in check to progress at Argentina's expense. He did manage two assists although one was pretty much inadvertent.

In four World Cups, Argentina's top goalscorer has scored a grand total of zero goals in the knockout stages.

How Argentina messed up their last chance at redemption

This was no shocking failure. It had been predicted as soon as the squad for the World Cup was announced. It was a considerably top-heavy side with a threadbare midfield and a weak defence - all of whom were exposed.

That this generation of players has reached so many finals (World Cup and Copa America) and lost every single time is more a reflection of an inability to get over the line than painful heartbreak. And that enervating jinx had set in and spread through the team much before the 2018 World Cup.

That 34-year-old Javier Mascherano was the only defensive midfielder who was tasked with shielding the defence speaks volumes about the lack of talent coming through the Argentina football system that was once producing players by the truckloads.

France v Argentina: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Javier Mascherano (R) spent his final game for Argentina chasing shadows

Mascherano, no longer playing in Europe, was a shadow of his 2014 self that had saved them time and again in the run-up to the final. There, he had run non-stop and even torn his anus to lead Argentina to the final.

Here, opponents outpaced him even when they weren't sprinting. And he was supposed to shield a three-man defence? It wasn't his fault, though. There was no one else.

Until 2007, Argentina were winning U-20 World Cups like it was nobody else's business. Current stars such as Messi and Angel Di Maria had won it once. Sergio Aguero had even won it twice!

But since then, there has been a dearth of youth talent coming through - which is why 14 players in Argentina's World Cup squad were aged 30 and above. Their most promising youngster was 24-year-old Paulo Dybala who played just 22 minutes - the least of all players used by Jorge Sampaoli in Russia.

Nigeria v Argentina: Group D - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Paulo Dybala was a permanent fixture on Argentina's bench at the World Cup

The big problem that has faced Argentina coaches in recent years is that their players who ply their trade in Europe get burned out by the time summer tournaments come around. It's not easy; jet-setting from one continent to another during a hectic season for friendlies and qualifiers.

Back in 2014, Argentina's attack was at their peak. This time, only Messi was (relatively speaking). And then they had another problem.

Jorge Sampaoli was never the right man for this squad

France v Argentina: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Jorge Sampaoli had no answers to Argentina's woes at the World Cup and he still doesn't

Argentine manager Jorge Sampaoli may have landed his dream job but he did not have the tools to take Argentina far. Yes, he had led Chile to a Copa America triumph over Argentina but that was a side built for him, its foundations laid by Marcelo 'Loco' Bielsa.

Chile too had a generation of players that came through together and adopted a high-pressing style that worked wonders for them as they lifted two consecutive Copa America titles.

But when Sampaoli tried to adopt the same strategy at Argentina, it backfired. Neither did their defenders and midfielders have the pace nor the stamina to play 90 minutes with the pedal to the metal.

It's no wonder then that Sampaoli kept changing the lineups and did not use the same starting lineup for 15 straight games as he tweaked with the starting XI in the hope of finally getting it right.

He never did.

It was only Messi's brilliance that took them to the World Cup with seven goals in the qualifiers (including a hat-trick in the final do-or-die qualifier against Ecuador). Nobody else scored more than two. In 2017 alone, the only other goalscorer apart from Messi was an own goal.

That the squad had to reportedly go against his wishes and pick their own starting lineup proved there was no clear tactical plan at the World Cup. Winging it with such attacking talent works for the odd game but not for an entire tournament.

What next for Argentina and, more importantly, Messi?

Messi has already 'retired' once, even though that decision was made under tougher circumstances. The big question continues to hover over his head - should he even continue to play for Argentina? He has carried this squad as far as he can - a few finals and an equal number of runners-up medals.

Given the lack of conviction from a bankrupt Argentina FA to make amends for years of stagnation and putting a system in place to develop the players required to form a competitive squad, why should he?

Messi bailed them out once by paying AFA employees their salaries after they were left unpaid for six months. He will not give them a second chance.

France v Argentina: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
How soon before Messi becomes nothing but a memory for Argentina?

Can Sampaoli help in overhauling Argentina's youth system so they can start winning youth tournaments again? Since 2007, neither the U-17 nor the U-20 teams have done well, with just one semi-final appearance (at the U17 World Cup in 2013) of note.

It's a long road for Argentina football to return to the top. They had their chance between 2014 and 2018 but they couldn't rally around the one man who could have made it possible.

And the price they may have to pay is to now try and go the distance without Messi.

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Rohith Nair
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