In probably his last World Cup, Lionel Messi is fizzling out

The greats tend to go out loudly.

Pele won his last World Cup in 1970, scored the opening goal in the final and was named player of the tournament. Johan Cruyff led the Netherlands to the final in his only World Cup in 1974, where the Dutch dominated in spite of losing to West Germany. After taking Argentina to two straight World Cup finals, winning the first, Diego Maradona was expelled from the 1994 World Cup when he tested positive for ephedrine. Zinedine Zidane took France to a second World Cup final and was sent off with a red card for headbutting a verbally abusive Italian.

Which brings us, of course, to Lionel Messi, who threatens to leave Russia and the game’s biggest stage not with a final roar but a muted whimper.

Argentina’s comprehensive 3-0 Thursday loss to a suddenly fancied Croatia gives the runners-up from four years ago – when they didn’t lose the final to Germany until extra-time – just a point from two games. Should Iceland beat a disappointing Nigeria on Friday, the Albiceleste will not only need to beat the Nigerians in their final game, but also depend on Croatia, which will have little to play for, to beat Iceland. And Messi and Co. will have to undo a deficit of three goals in the goal difference as well.

The little Argentine turns 31 on Sunday, which means he very likely could play in another World Cup after this one. And barring some sudden collapse in Messi’s abilities, chances are he’ll still be among the world’s best.

Yet Messi has had a complicated relationship with his national team. For many years in his early Argentina career, he routinely drew the ire of fans. Because he’d left his hometown of Rosario for Barcelona at just 13 and had more or less grown up in Spain, there were questions about how much he really cared about playing for his country. That notion was underscored by his performances, which never matched those with his club – never mind that he had far better teammates at Barca.

At length, that was all dispelled when Messi dragged a flawed Argentina team to the World Cup final and consecutive Copa America finals in three straight summers, all three of which were lost in extra-time or on penalties. But while Messi isn’t the type to speak out about this sort of thing, his apprehension about playing for Argentina was evident again when he walked up to the press less than an hour after that third lost final and promptly announced that he was retiring from the national team.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi reacts after the third goal by Croatia during the group D match between Argentina and Croatia. (AP)
Argentina’s Lionel Messi reacts after the third goal by Croatia during the group D match between Argentina and Croatia. (AP)

He came back around, of course, and his discontent was likely caused as much by the absolutely chaos roiling the Argentina federation as misgivings about international soccer. Nonetheless, it’s widely believed that this will be Messi’s final World Cup. And you can’t really blame him. He’s already put in 126 appearances (third-most all-time) and 64 goals (most all-time) and spent almost a decade and a half commuting across the Atlantic to represent his country. He has three sons and a wife now. And he’s gotten to a point in his career where he needs to watch the miles he puts on his legs throughout the long season.

What’s more, the generation Messi has played with for most of his national team career is starting to age out – or perhaps should have already. World Cup qualifying was a desperate struggle. And looking down the pipeline, there isn’t a whole lot of help on the way. Or not enough to sustain this finals-level run, anyway. Going into the tournament, it was already plain to see that this Argentina said was well past it.

Which is all to say that depending on the result Friday and what transpires in the final round of games in Group D on Tuesday, chances are we’re days from having seen the last of Messi at a World Cup.

His form won’t have lived up to his overall body of work for the national team. In Argentina’s 1-1 stalemate with little Iceland in its opener, Messi was prominent but mustered little threat, and then he missed a late penalty that could have avoided the deep hole his team now has to claw its way out of.

And Thursday, Messi was most commonly described as “invisible” as Argentina never really got anything going. Their captain’s toil was in vain and his frustration evident. Messi barely influenced the play, getting the fewest touches of any Argentine.

Enzo Perez missed an open goal at half an hour that, again, would have changed things. But once Croatia went ahead after half-time on an absurd mistake by Argentina goalkeeper Willy Caballero, who cleared the ball right to the wide-open Ante Rebic, it all came crumbling – in spite of fat chances for Kun Aguero and Maximiliano Meza.

Argentine manager Jorge Sampaoli was candid about his team’s fragile state.

And he conceded that their failings were too numerous for Messi to compensate for on his own.

At this World Cup, Messi has often looked like he’s tired of carrying his team, both mentally and physically. Unexpectedly, the images of this World Cup that will endure in Messi’s legacy – as the greatest of all time – aren’t of his quotidian brilliance as he shimmied through endless defenders on his way to another medal. Instead, it will be of moments like the 73rd minute, when Messi lashed out and got in the face of Ivan Strinic, who had brought him down in Argentina’s own half to prevent a counter-attack.

It was very unlike Messi, who tends to possess a monk’s patience with the regular kicking he takes, seemingly understanding that lesser men simply have no choice when they face him. But then this entire tournament has been very unlike Messi.

When the final whistle rang out, he walked right down the tunnel, ignoring most everybody. Messi was eager to get away from the whole thing.

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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