After the last Copa America, or a close facsimile of the Copa America anyway, Lionel Messi ambled over to a clump of Argentinian journalists in the guts of the stadium and sullenly announced that he was retiring from the national team.
This was in New Jersey in the summer of 2016, when the Albiceleste had lost the final of the Copa America Centenario – a money-grabbish centennial extra edition of the tournament played stateside – to Chile on penalties. It was the second straight summer Chile had prevailed over the Argentines in the title game on spot kicks. It was the third year in a row that Argentina had been vanquished in a major final, after the 2014 World Cup was lost to Germany in extra time.
Messi soon had a change of heart and rejoined the national team for the stretch run of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. And it may have been a power play, in fact, the star and captain forcing the perennially chaotic and incompetent Argentinian federation to shape up. At any rate, he stuck around.
And there he was again on Saturday, playing in his nation’s opening game of a major tournament. Back to the Copa America, a tournament in which Argentina has come second in four of the last five editions, but which it has not won since 1993.
Here’s another chance for Messi to finally win something with his nation, other than the Olympics or Under-20 World Cup, both of which are youth tournaments. To finally round out that resume with a major international prize, to silence the very last of his critics. Not that he needs to, exactly.
But then it will be harder than ever, as evidenced by Saturday’s 2-0 loss to a talented Colombia in a scrappy game.
Messi’s odds have been diminishing year by year not so much on account of his own age – just days before his 32nd birthday, he has not yet shown any signs of decline – but that of the core of teammates he lined up alongside for a decade. Save for him, the old guard, Javier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuain and all the rest, is mostly gone.
All that remains is a ragtag band of sometimes-helpful role players, glueing together what passes for a supporting cast to the world’s greatest-ever player. Because it’s been a few years since Angel di Maria was a winger who could make the difference. Kun Aguero is a poacher and only as good as his system and service. Giovani Lo Celso is a fine midfielder, but has often been anonymous for Argentina. Paulo Dybala is always pedestrian for his national team and tends to operate in the same spaces Messi does, getting in his way. And aside from that, well, it’s all on Messi. Even his manager, Lionel Scaloni, once a marginal national teamer with no prior head coaching experience, is third-rate.
Colombia, to be sure, deserved its win.
Argentina was simply that bad, especially in the first half when it recorded all of one shot.
The only first-half chance Argentina got was when David Ospina’s aerial acrobatics nearly gifted Aguero a goal.
Not to be outdone, Argentina goalkeeper Franco Armani and defender Nico Otamendi had their own comical miscue.
Then again, Colombian captain Radamel Falcao was lucky to be spared a red card when he elbowed Leandro Paredes in the face.
And so Messi tried to put his team on his back. Early in the second half, he took it upon himself to dribble through the entire Colombian defense before he was finally closed down.
But Colombia had a plan for him, clogging his lanes and closing him down aggressively, causing a big scuffle on the hour when Juan Cuadrado went in hard on Messi.
The closest Messi got was when Otamendi won a header and Messi nodded the rebound on Ospina’s save wide.
And soon enough, Colombia took the lead. In the 71st minute, James Rodriguez dropped a splendid cross on Roger Martinez, who cut inside and unleashed a stupendous shot to beat Armani.
A quarter of an hour later, Duvan Zapata redirected Jefferson Lerma’s tight, low cross into the net.
Chances are, the loss won’t be terribly consequential. This was Argentina’s toughest game of the group stage by far. All it has to do to advance is beat Paraguay and guest team Qatar. And even if it doesn’t, plenty of routes to the quarterfinals remain, since two of the three third-place teams move on as well.
But all of that sort of misses the point. Sure, Argentina will probably make the knockout stages. But then what? How much can Messi really do all by himself? Especially when there’s practically nobody else to distract the opposing team, or to offer an alternative? He has virtually no help.
In one of his last chances at international glory, Messi seems further away than ever.
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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