Who is the real villain here: Jorge Sampaoli, the AFA... or Lionel Messi?
28/03/2017, La Paz, CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifier
Situated 3,637 metres above sea-level, the Estadio Hernando Siles is not an easy place to visit. The thin air, the cold, the absolutely no-nonsense national team -- it's as close to hell as you can get in professional modern day football.
And Argentina were going to battle without their captain.
For questioning the nature of the referee's mother's occupation during their particularly heated match against Chile five days previously, Lionel Messi had been handed a four-match ban -- he was going to be a mere spectator. And he wasn't going to like what he saw.
With Ever Banega captain, Angel di Maria, Lucas Pratto, and Angel Correa leading the line in Edgardo Bauza's typically uninspirational 4-4-2, they got absolutely plastered by the Bolivians: Juan Carlos Arce and Marcelo Moreno bagging a goal apiece in the Andean nation's best display of the campaign.
The Hernando Siles was bouncing.
A fortnight later, Bauza was sacked by the AFA. He'd been in charge for only 8 matches - all of them qualifiers - and his record read W-D-D-L-L-W-W-L
Argentina were fifth on the table. The playoff position.
31/08/2017, Montevideo, CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifier
Jorge Sampaoli was a happy man. Having just overseen a (relatively) successful Sevilla campaign in La Liga - El Grande de Andalucia playing some of the most high-intensity, exciting, football in Europe - he'd got his dream job.
Manager of his home nation. Manager of Argentina.
FIFA'd given him a major boost, too, ahead of his first competitive fixture - suspending the remainder of Messi's four-match ban, making him eligible to play against eternal rivals Uruguay in another crunch qualifier.
He listened to his nation's demands, he unshackled the expansive attacking talent at his disposal, he squeezed in Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi (finally), Angel di Maria and Leo Messi into the side in a wild 3-4-3 formation... and came away with a 0-0 as Oscar Tabarez's men Oscar-Tabarez-ed their way through the 90 minutes.
There are few teams, and fewer fanbases, that enjoy a 0-0 grind of a result quite like the Uruguayans - and as Jorge Sampaoli paced the touchline in that perma-irritated, perma-furious manner of his, Estadio Centenario was bouncing.
This wasn't the start Sampaoli'd envisaged.
Argentina remained fifth.
05/09/2017, Buenos Aires, CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifiers
Having seen his side being bullied around with casual ease all campaign long, Rafael Dudamel had had enough. Sick of the attitude his seniors displayed on the pitch, and in training, he asked the vast majority of them to pack their bags and took to the hallowed pitch of the Estadio Monumental with a Venezuela side whose average age was 23 -- only three were on the wrong side of 25: Rolf Feltscher, Arquímedes Figuera... and Salomon Rondon.
Against this rag-tag bunch, Sampaoli started the same front four he had against Uruguay - Dybala, Icardi, Di Maria, Messi. They should have ripped the Venezuelans apart.
Instead, it needed a Feltscher own goal to make sure Argentina scraped through with a point - Jhon Murillo having opened the scoring for the away side. The whipping boys of the 2018 Qualification campaign had brought a bunch of youngsters to the home of mighty Argentina - and had thoroughly outplayed them.
The Monumental reverberated with boos.
Argentina remained fifth.
05/10/2017, Buenos Aires, CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifiers
This time, they were ready. The AFA, displeased with the ambivalent attitude shown by the supporters at the Monumental, had shifted venues - across the city to La Bombonera they went; the singing, bouncing home of Boca Juniors. To make sure they created a Boca-esque atmosphere, they even held talks with the main ultra groups, asking them to fill the stands, light up the flares, rain down the confetti.
Argentina was going to be vocal, and highly visible, in support of the national team.
Sampaoli ditched his stars and went with his guts for this - starting Papu Gomez and Dario Benedetto ahead of Icardi and Dybala in a 4-2-3-1 system that saw Messi take his position as the central figure of that attacking midfield three.
Ricardo Gareca's men, though, were fighting for qualification too - and yielded not one inch. Messi dropped deep, Messi drifted to the right, Messi stayed up-top. The score remained 0-0. Sampaoli's third competitive game, his third draw.
La Bombonera reverberated with boos.
Argentina dropped to sixth. Stay there, and they'd miss the plane to Russia.
10/10/2017, Quito, CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifiers
These Argentines really don't like the thin air of the Andean nations. And to ensure qualification to Russia, they'd have to go to the Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa (2,782m above MSL) and win. In seven previous visits, they'd only done so once.
This time, Sampaoli went for a 3-4-2-1; Angel Di Maria and Leo Messi playing together behind Dario Benedetto with Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi warming their backsides on the bench.
When Romario Iborra opened the scoring for the Ecuadorians in the first minute of the game, the unimaginable looked a reality. There could be a World Cup without Argentina. That's when Lionel Andres Messi decided he'd had enough.
In one of the great individual performances of our time, Messi seized the game by the scruff of the neck and absolutely smashed his opponents to smithereens. Three goals, each better than the last (the third nigh inconceivable for the mere mortal), all unanswered - and Argentina were through. 3-1.
They'd finished third. They were going to Russia.
A beaming Messi led the small, but vocal, contingent of away supporters in the chants. As ever, he'd made everyone forget the chaos, the pain, the suffering... Lionel Messi's football had brought joy to them all.
16/6/2018, Moscow, World Cup 2018
This was going to be Messi's World Cup.
That last qualifier had ensured that everything else - Sampaoli's eccentric formations, Argentina's abysmal form in the pre-World Cup friendlies, the exclusion of Mauro Icardi - got swept under the carpet. That last match had shown us that Leo Messi was going to lead from the front.
This was going to be his World Cup.
A dentist from Reykjavik, though, had other plans.
Heimir Hallgrímsson, practicing dentist and manager of the Iceland football team, packed the middle of the Otkrytie Arena with 5 midfielders, and along with his four-man backline, set-up a wall of giant Vikings in front of Sampaoli's 4-2-3-1, Messi once again in the centre.
The great man dropped deep, he drifted hither, he floated thither, but suffocated by the constant presence of at least three men in white shirts around him, he could do nothing.
Then he got a penalty.
And it was saved by a man who's part-time goalkeeper, part-time filmmaker.
Head bowed, he walked out of the stadium looking like a child who'd lost his way in a crowd and had stumbled upon the greatest sporting stage known to mankind by sheer accident. If he'd looked up, he'd have seen Diego Maradona, cigar in hand, thumping his chest and yelling "Vamos".
Iceland had shut him down, but with a 1-1, it was still a salvageable situation. The cheers from the Albiceleste section of the crowd remained as loud as ever.
22/6/2018, Veliky Novgorod, World Cup 2018
Leo Messi lined up in the same position from where he'd destroyed Ecuador in Quito, as part of an attacking midfield two in behind a sole striker - this time Sergio Aguero and Maximiliano Meza standing in place of Dario Benedetto and Angel Di Maria in the Sampaoli 3-4-2-1. Sixth competitive game, sixth different starting XI.
This time the Argentines tried to press higher up the field, but they did so half-heartedly - half-hearted pressing against Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic (quite simply the closest the football world will ever get to sex on the field) is simply asking for trouble. And boy, did they find it. The Croats cut the supply lines to Aguero, shut down the dribbling channels of Messi, passed their way around the half-press with contemptuous ease, and eviscerated the South Americans down the wings. In every single department of the game, Argentina were outthought, outfought, and outplayed.
3-0 was kind to them.
Up in the stands, Diego Maradona slumped down into his seats. The quietest we've seen him for years. The Argentine supporters sobbed, silently.
Messi walked out, head bowed, shoulders sagging with the weight of the burden he's been carrying around for a decade.
Who the hell do we blame now? For make no mistake, blame is warranted.
Argentina have been an absolute shambles for close to two years now - the cracks appearing well before that, their last major trophy coming in 1993 as clear an indication that all's not been well in the system for quite some time - and the AFA has done nothing but edge the whole shebang closer to total chaos year by passing year.
After the penalty shoot-out defeat to Chile in the Copa America Centenario, Messi and a bunch of other seniors retired from international football, sick of having to play the turgid stuff Gerardo Martino called football, sick of the nonstop chaos within the federation, sick of the unpaid dues that administrative-level employees had had to work through - only to be coaxed back by an apologetic federation and a beseeching public.
When Martino was sacked, and Bauza bought in, they'd hoped for more attacking enterprise without compromising on the defensive solidity that'd got them to three major finals in three years under Martino - but they got nothing.
So they hired Sampaoli.
Jorge Sampaoli's done great things in his career. His Universidad de Chile, Chile national team, and Sevilla outfits were absolute joys to watch, all incessantly whirring legs and nonstop attacks - passion made tangible - and he loved Leo Messi, and Leo Messi liked him. Should have been a perfect union.
Should have been.
He's won just one of his six competitive matches - four in 13 overall, he's started a different XI in every match, and he's got neither passion nor invention instilled into this side. Most of the team look confused as to what they are supposed to be doing - the back three resembling something straight out of Stanley Kubrick's masochistic nightmares, the midfield a turgid mess that really have no right to wear the same jersey that Juan Ramon Riquelme and Fernando Redondo once sported, the attack looking like they're all playing different sports.
It's easy for us to sit on the outside and judge - to yell, after the fact, that Angel Di Maria should have started, or that Paulo Dybala should have played, or that Mauro Icardi should have been picked - and it's not like Sampaoli's not tried every possible permutation and combination he could have in the short, short, span he's been in charge. Nothing's worked. Nothing's even looked like it'd come close to working.
Before the tournament, he'd suggested Argentina would line up in an ultra-Bielsa 2-3-3-2, Messi playing behind the forward but with another playmaker (a la Banega) in the middle of the field to ease the pressure on him. For whatever reason, it's not happened.
For a man who prides himself in building sides that run themselves to the ground, his Argentine side have been a study in the art of standing still - not so much slow as immobile; aging, unwilling legs planted to the ground, the coach's tactics off the pitch torn asunder by a complete, total, lack of implementation on it. That he's not adapted his tactics, that he's not changed it to suit the playing styles of his current charges speaks volumes of the obstinacies - and sadly, the inadequacies - of the modern manager.
Then there's the man who dragged them into Russia. The man who's made an entire generation fall head over heels in love with him, and through him, this game. The man.
This isn't an exercise in pushing Messi off a plinth and beating him to death with some sort of sadistic glee (hell, for Argentina, that plinth isn't too high to warrant pushing off from) but you cannot help but wonder, where is the real Messi?
Everything being spoken in his defense merits listening to - and the fact that he's the greatest pure footballer on the planet brooks little argument - but at the end of the day, all those statements end up sounding like... well... excuses
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic have come out and made statements along the lines of this by Ivan Perisic - "Messi is the best, just like Cristiano Ronaldo, but you can only achieve something if you play as a team. Argentina need to change something if they are to go forward."
Jorge Sampaoli's thrown his entire team, and himself, under the bus to save him - "With the reality of the Argentina squad, it sort of clouds Leo's brilliance. He's limited because the team doesn't gel with him ideally, as it should."
And yet, it's not the whole truth, is it? In the minds of most, things are in black and white - you are either on Messi's side or you aren't, it is either Messi's fault completely or it isn't at all - but the truth lies somewhere in between. A gray area few have the moral conviction to explore.
He was man-marked against Iceland, targeted by big men with bigger thighs than most men have waists, but he's been man-marked all his life - and he's beaten them all. He had his passing lines cut out against Croatia - but he's had that done to him before too - his response, invariably, dropping deeper and controlling the game from there.
This time, he's done nothing.
It's hard to strike out that image of Messi and Mascherano (a man who once literally tore his arsehole stretching to put in a last-ditch tackle to save his nation), standing still, hands on hips, a couple of feet away from Rakitic as he and Mateo Kovacic toyed with the Argentine defence for that last, nail-in-the-coffin goal. Like they'd already given up.
Messi hardly says anything - either in his defence or in others' - but when things don't go his way, his team's way, and he remains quiet - the silence can be deafening.
That he'll retreat back into his shell is not up for debate, it's just who he is - he skipped a team & family barbeque the night after the Iceland game choosing instead to sit in his room alone and contemplate life; a man cannot change his basic behaviour in the blink of an eye - but what is also not up for debate is that Argentina need someone to stir them forward, to inspire them out of this dreary mess, to lead them.
It'd be foolish to write Messi off, he's proven time and again that's he capable of doing things on a football pitch that most of us cannot even begin to conceive in our minds and he's proven that's he got the mental strength to beat the best of them, but he needs to work a miracle for Argentina now. He needs to go one better than Quito in St. Petersburg come the 26th of June.
Head held high, shoulders straightened, chest thrust out, Lionel Messi now needs to lead.