He’s not having any fun at this World Cup, Lionel Messi, that much is obvious. More than that uncharacteristically tame penalty kick that cost Argentina victory against Iceland, or the slumping-shouldered response to Croatia’s second goal in the game that put one of soccer’s greats on the verge of elimination, there was a telling moment that summed up what it feels like for Messi to play for his country.
It was during the national anthem ahead of that second game, and it spoke volumes. As the television cameras panned along the line, where he was, half of soccer’s pair of modern maestros, rubbed his forehead and sighing deeply with the kind of pained expression you’d expect from a sleep-deprived, caffeine-addled Wall Street executive.
Don’t even think about suggesting Messi lacks love for his homeland or pride in being the captain and talisman for its national soccer team. That’s not the case, but the truth is that he doesn’t much like playing for Argentina because it causes him nothing except pain.
He has felt the burden of being anointed as a national treasure at a young age and still carries the weight of his country’s World Cup hopes — no, demands — as much as he ever did. It is a payload that gets heavier with each passing year, every fresh disappointment or missed opportunity.
This latest chance is hanging by a thread, with Argentina sitting on just a single point after two games and needing to beat Nigeria in St. Petersburg on Tuesday to have any way of squeezing into the round of 16.
If Messi feels stress at club level with Barcelona, he does an exquisite job of concealing it. Soccer’s oldest cliché, a phrase so beloved of coaches everywhere, is to take one game at a time. Yet that’s what he does there, just rolling from one challenge to the next, reeling off virtuoso performances with such regularity that we become spoiled by them and are disappointed by anything he does that is mere “very good” rather than “godly.”
It is easier to play with that kind of freedom when you have accomplished everything, and there are no boxes to be ticked for Messi at Barca, where he has won everything worth winning, multiple times, while also collecting a glut of individual accolades.
However, on the international scene, his cupboard is bare. He felt like the 2014 World Cup was his time, but he underperformed in the final and Germany outlasted Argentina in a battle of wills.
Even in South American continental competition, Argentina has not won a Copa America title in the Messi era. It came closest in 2016 when it lost on penalties in the final, Messi missed his kick in the shootout, then promptly retired from national team duty before later reconsidering.
He doesn’t talk a lot, this shyest of soccer superstars, but still says the right things about what he wants from his time clad in the blue-and-white.
“It means so much because for Argentina the World Cup is special — and for me too,” Messi said. “I’ve always had the dream of watching me raise the World Cup. And then seeing the emotion that goes with it.
“My hair stands on end just thinking about that moment. I would not like to retire from active football without being a world champion with my country.”
But unless Messi’s own performances improve, that is the exact fate that awaits him. He will be 35 by the time soccer’s global spectacle rolls around again, and may no longer be a dominant force to the same extent. Cristiano Ronaldo is making noises about being back in four years, but new stars will surely be poking at those two elites by then.
And as much as Messi claims he wants this, he’s not doing a very good job of showing it in this tournament. His body language is horrible, and it rubs off on his teammates. News emerged in the Argentinean media over the weekend of a player mutiny against head coach Jorge Sampaoli that will reportedly mean that senior squad members — not Sampaoli — will pick the lineup for the Nigeria game.
But what if it is not the man on the sidelines, but Lionel Messi himself, who is the root of Argentina’s current problems? He hasn’t lost his ability to execute magic with the ball, yet neither has he shown much in the way of physical desperation.
According to the Guardian, during the first game against Iceland, Lionel Messi covered less than a mile of turf while not in possession of the ball, a staggeringly low amount for an outfield player, and indeed, less than two goalkeepers.
Such numbers are not true barometers of greatness, but with time running out for Lionel Messi, consider this. Magicians of soccer produce their tricks when the chips are down, the true greats rise when they are counted on. That is the task faced with Messi now, and if he manages it, who knows, he might even start having fun.