Lionel Messi deserves better than this

Is this how it ends?

Is this how the greatest player of all time finishes his tortured national team career?

Surely, Lionel Messi deserves better than this. Than to stand on the bridge of a sinking ship, holding onto hope against hope.

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Argentina has played twice in the ongoing Copa America. And it has failed to win twice. After a comprehensive 2-0 loss to Colombia on Saturday, even unfancied Paraguay, which couldn’t even muster victory against little Qatar in its opener, tied the Argentines 1-1 on Wednesday in a result that, frankly, flattered the latter. Because the Video Assistant Referee granted Argentina a most dubious penalty, converted by Messi, while Paraguay missed its own spot kick and generally had the better of the chances.

The Albiceleste are not only winless but also goalless from the run of play through 180 minutes and change. That’s 180 minutes of having Messi and Kun Aguero on the field, the first- and third-highest scorers in the country’s history, respectively. That’s 180 minutes of simply abject performances.

Because that’s how bad the team around Messi and Aguero is. At the last two editions of the Copa, the regular one in 2015 and the centennial extra edition the following summer, Argentina reached the final and was unfortunate to lose both to Chile on penalty kicks. The year before that, it had lost the World Cup final to Germany in extra time.

And as such, Messi still hasn’t won anything with his home nation – he also lost the 2007 Copa final -- the country with which he’s had a complicated relationship since leaving for FC Barcelona as a 13-year-old and never quite replicating all the success he’s had with his club.

Messi briefly retired from the national team following the third straight lost final in 2016 in protest of the deep-rooted dysfunction at the Argentine federation. And there must have been a lot of days where he’ll wish he’d stuck to it and saved himself the Atlantic commute and the grief. Because Argentina was poor at the 2018 World Cup, squeaking through the group stage and getting trounced by eventual champions France in the round of 16.

And at this Copa, things look so much worse.

If this is the final international competition for Lionel Messi, he deserves better than Argentina's providing him. (Associated Press)
If this is the final international competition for Lionel Messi, he deserves better than Argentina's providing him. (Associated Press)

Argentina is a team devoid of identity and heart, the two things it once had in spades. It plays a weird blend of direct soccer and the short-passing sequences in which Messi thrives. But it winds up not really playing either. And with a raft of core players aged out or rendered irrelevant, while some of the best young prospects haven’t panned out for their national team, Messi has virtually no help.

Thanks to the tie, Argentina is still in OK shape to be among the eight teams, out of 12, to advance to the quarterfinals. A win over Qatar will likely do the job, with Paraguay facing Colombia. But that’s almost beside the point. Messi and Co. will not win this tournament. They won’t come close. And so Messi’s 14-year run with his national team surely won’t go much longer.

It’s hard to fathom that he’ll put himself through qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. He turns 32 next week, and even he will have to begin managing his exertions more carefully at some point. There’s another Copa America next year, co-hosted by Argentina and Colombia, but not even that seems a given.

If he plays, there’s little prospect of Messi suddenly finding himself on a much-improved team, let alone a competitor. There’s too much incompetence around him. There’s a reason the best manager the AFA was able to attract was Lionel Scaloni, in his very first job as a head coach and hardly convincing thus far.

Messi was, again, mostly by himself, going on his usual mazy, puncturing dribbles but simply running into funnels in the well-constructed Paraguayan lines.

He registered his side’s only shot on goal in the first half, when he a curled a free kick way too softly to trouble goalkeeper Junior Fernandez.

Meanwhile, Paraguay forged high-quality looks. And in the 37th minute, Miguel Almiron tore down the entire left flank before cutting the ball back to Richard Sanchez, who ran onto it and smacked it behind Franco Armani.

On the verge of halftime, Armani very nearly gave away another as he bungled an all-too-clever touch a long way out of his area and had to take out Derlis Gonzalez with a fairly vicious kick.

After halftime, however, Argentina was gifted a goal by good fortune. Lautaro Martinez’s effort grazed Gustavo Gomez’s arm, allegedly, according to VAR, and even then it wasn’t clear, before hitting the crossbar. Messi’s volley was then parried well by Fernandez.

But the penalty was awarded anyway and Messi capitalized.

Not much later, Nicolas Otamendi made an incomprehensible tackle on Gonzalez in his own box. But Armani saved when Gonzalez took the penalty.

A few more close calls didn’t punish Argentina either, and it was fortunate to escape with a point.

But it’s all quite clear now. Argentina is in freefall. And the only question is how long Messi will put up with it.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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