It threatened to be a World Cup without Lionel Messi, but then the Barcelona man did his magic by scoring three goals against Ecuador to send Argentina roaring to Russia. But after conceding three goals to Croatia on Thursday, Argentina are hanging by the thread. They are now purring meekly.
Considering the stage, considering all that was at stake, this moment truly seemed poised for Messi to produce the sort of illuminating display that he has shown so regularly since 2008. It didn’t materialise.
The surprise is that for all the talk of Willy Caballero’s mistake and Jorge Sampaoli’s ludicrous tactical set up, the blame should also lay firmly in Messi’s court. He — of all footballers of this generation bar Cristiano Ronaldo — has earned the right for the extraordinary to be expected in extreme measures.
The greatest players on the planet are like that. They are not restricted by systems or position. Indeed, take any of history’s greats — Pele, Diego Maradona, Alfredo Di Stefano, Johan Cruyff — and the fluidity of their play meant they were always able to lift those around them regardless of tactical setups.
Even Messi’s decade long nemesis — Ronaldo, who has lit up this tournament — is of similar ilk. Both players are neither wingers nor strikers. They are forwards who roam free, maestros conducting the orchestra and dictating the rhythm of those around them. Almost always — despite anything and in spite of everything — great players find a way.
But now, Messi-dependence has turned one of the greatest players in history into a liability for his national side. The scrutiny has been severe and the pressure has bogged him down. Messi’s display wasn’t just about the tactics or the mistakes. His vanishing act was telling in that the rhythm of the team now affected him. Head down, shoulders shrugged, the armband seemingly weighing heavily upon him.
The forlorn figure he cut signaled that this was a player succumbing to it all. And with it probably Messi’s final chance of setting ablaze the tournament.
Perhaps, Argentina will still find a way — and if any team can do so, if any player can, Leo can. But the odds are stacked so heavily against this Argentina side that has endured loss in competition finals for three consecutive years between 2014 and 2016.
It means Messi’s bow will leave many still debating the lack of a truly definitive World Cup moment. While his place among the greats is secured by the sheer brilliance of his club form, the blemish will always remain his lack of winning anything with Argentina (the Beijing Olympics gold medal in 2008 aside).
As such, much like Di Stefano who lacks a blot on football’s grandest stage. Much like Cruyff and Ferenc Puskas who never lifted the World Cup but like Messi got so close only to be denied by the [West] Germans.
Much like Lazlo Kubala, who built Barcelona but never realised definitive moments with his national side, Hungary. Messi’s last chance saloon for Argentina has come. With him disappearing at such a crucial moment, so has the chance vanished.