With the 2018 FIFA World Cup set to begin next week, there are plenty of storylines to follow. One of the bigger storylines revolves around Argentina’s Lionel Messi. The F.C. Barcelona striker has taken most -if not all- of the heat for “La Albiceleste’s” shortcomings in recent international competitions. Since joining the national team in 2005, the only major title that Argentina has won was the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Here is how they finished in other world events during the Messi era…..
2005 Copa America: Runners-up
2006 World Cup: Quarterfinals
2007 Copa America: Runners-up
2010 World Cup: Quarterfinals
2011 Copa America: Quarterfinals
2014 World Cup: Runners-up
2015 Copa America: Runners-up
2016 Copa America Centenario: Runners-up
Those last two Copa America’s hurt because they lost to Chile both years. But the 2014 World Cup championship loss was especially painful because they had the chance to win on the home soil of arch-rival Brazil. Heading into Russia, Messi is being pushed hard to deliver the country’s first World Cup title since 1986.
Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo are constantly compared to one another, especially since both men have practically split the Ballon d’Or award over the last decade. While both men’s outstanding club careers are practically equal, Ronaldo has the edge at the international level.
“There’s no player under more pressure than Messi,” says Brian Sandalow, a soccer expert who’s written for the Chicago-Sun Times, The Sporting News, and the Associated Press. He’s also the author of “Chicago: America’s Best Sports Town” which goes on sale on June 12th.
He continues about Messi, “With Cristiano Ronaldo winning Euro 2016, Messi needs a major international trophy to keep pace with his arch-rival. It’s the only thing his resume is missing, and Messi finally needs to deliver something for Argentina.”
Every time Argentina comes up short, there’s always a reason (or excuse depending on who you ask) for why it happens. But according to Sandalow, “It just feels like Argentina always does something to get in its own way. One example: Diego Maradona (as) national team coach. And in years Argentina hasn’t gotten in its own way, it’s been blocked by simply better sides (such as Germany in 2014).”
While Maradona wasn’t entirely successful as a coach, he’s one of the most revered players in the nation’s history. Even though Messi has more goals (64 to 34) and caps (124 to 91) than Maradona, the fact the former coach has won that 1986 World Cup keeps the debate alive about which player is better. But should those comparisons stop unless Messi wins the big one?
“No. No. No. That’s what sports is about,” Sandalow says. “It’s fun to compare those two. Messi’s club career -at least in terms of trophies- dwarfs Maradona’s. But Maradona’s 1986 World Cup is a feat that Messi hasn’t matched yet. This is (a) fun (debate). It’s sort of Argentina’s version of MJ (Michael Jordan) vs. LeBron (James). Both are awesome but have different resumes,” he added.
One area that does give Messi somewhat of a free pass is the lack of a supporting cast behind him at times. Midfielder Angel Di Maria -who some consider to be the No. 2 guy behind Messi- is usually the target in this regard, and there is some truth to that. When you combine the last World Cup and the last two Copa’s, Messi has 10 goals compared to Di Maria’s four. It’s time that Di Maria chips in more offensively.
“Di Maria does (need to step up), but so does everybody else. Messi can’t be expected to do this all himself,” Sandalow said.
Argentina is a favorite to win Group D in Russia, but their potential road to the championship after that gets a little cloudy. So what will it take for Argentina to finally get to the promised land?
“Everything will have to go right. It’s possible Argentina could have to beat France, Portugal and Brazil in the knockout rounds just to reach the final. That’s a heck of an ask,” says Sandalow.
Messi will be 31-years-old by the time the World Cup kicks off in Russia, which essentially means that he’s headed towards the end of his prime. So it’s natural if anyone is questioning his future with the national team beyond this World Cup. Especially since he nearly quit the team a couple of years ago. So would he depart the team if Argentina fails again?
“No. He should keep trying to win something,” Sandlow said. He continued, “It’s stunning that Argentina hasn’t backed into a Copa title with arguably the world’s best player -and many more excellent ones- on the team. Unless he feels he cannot physically balance playing club soccer in Europe and internationally across an ocean, there’s no reason for him to stop yet. The next Copa is next year in Brazil. How sweet would it be for Messi and company to lift a trophy there?”
So what will Messi’s legacy be when all is said done? According to Sandalow, “Messi needs to win something with Argentina before he’s anointed the greatest player of all time. The other figures he’s compared with -Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo- all have international trophies. If we’re talking strictly about club soccer, Messi has the greatest resume and impact. But world soccer isn’t just club soccer. If he wins something with Argentina, then you can make a strong case he’s the greatest player ever. If he doesn’t, he’s still one of the all-time greats but his resume will have a glaring hole.”
The moment of truth has arrived for both Messi and Argentina.