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It was as if Lionel Messi knew. As if the mourning had already begun, before the scene that would culminate in the fatal blow even unraveled. The image has already become a meme. But it was more than that. It was pressure. It was expectation. Expectation soon to be unfulfilled.
Shortly before 90 of the worst minutes of his prolific career, as millions of Argentineans around the world roared along with their national anthem, Messi shut his eyes and brought a pale right hand to his forehead. His head was slightly bowed.
Over the next two hours, the World Cup that was supposed to be his fell apart. A 3-0 loss to Croatia pushed him and Argentina to the brink. It left the soccer world stunned. And it left a single question on the tips of tongues everywhere: How?
How did Argentina, with arguably the greatest player the sport has ever seen, flounder so calamitously? How did a team with Lionel Messi become a national disgrace?
Back to that image. To Messi’s agonized rubs of his forehead. Because they were telling.
Messi seemed acutely aware of the torment approaching. And perhaps we should have been as well. His face told of expectations that didn’t align with the team trying to meet them. So perhaps we should have lowered them.
The warning signs were there. They had been present for weeks, months, even years.
Messi’s brilliance afforded shelter from reality. And reality was that Argentina, over the past two years, was never all that good. It limped through qualifying, bailed out only by a Messi hat trick on the final night.
Reality was that throughout Messi’s Argentina career, and especially recently, there have been inherent, structural problems. That Messi had not figured out how to mesh with his Argentinean teammates, nor them with him. Three managers had tried to facilitate that relationship throughout qualifying with tactics both complex and simple. All three had failed.
Those incompatible relationships – between Messi and teammates’ skill sets, between Messi and coaches’ systems, between Messi and outsize on-field expectations – are at the heart of Argentina’s 2018 World Cup disaster. And blame for them lies everywhere, including with Messi, but not exclusively with Messi. In fact, far from it.
All the bearers of Argentinean blame are the losers of Day 8 in Russia.
It is often known as Messi Dependencia – Messi Dependence. It was as extreme as ever in Argentina’s opener against Iceland. And it’s the result of a years-long vicious cycle, one that turned a team of many talents into a team of one. Or, on Thursday, a team of none.
Messi’s gifts are gravitational. Teammates naturally turn to him. The ball invariably finds his feet. And Messi, being the genius that he is, so often has rewarded their faith. Given the keys to the Argentinean car, he has driven it to success.
But his individual success feeds into teammates’ willingness to rely on him. They yield to greatness. He makes magic. And positive reinforcement kicks in; the ball finds Messi’s feet more and more often. Teammates turn to him with increasing automation.
That’s how the dependence developed, and it became habitual. It became an addiction impossible to break. Managers, consequentially, have understood this and structured teams around Messi. That, too, has facilitated the reliance even more.
And the more teammates were made to feel like secondary or tertiary characters, the less responsibility they took; the more they disengaged; the more they underperformed. And the more they became incapable of picking up the slack when Messi misfired.
And when Messi did misfire …
Loser: Lionel Messi
Argentina’s reliance on Messi made his performances binary propositions. Either he succeeded or failed. Against Iceland, his free kicks struck foreheads; his curling 20-yard efforts whizzed by posts; his penalty was palmed away. So he failed.
His failure left manager Jorge Sampaoli with a decision, one with which so many coaches have grappled in the past. Was the remedy to increase the effectiveness of Messi? Or empower 10 others at the expense of No. 10?
Sampaoli chose the latter. He made three changes and swapped a coherent 4-2-3-1 for an undefined mess of a 3-4-3. And Messi got lost within it, just as he had warned Sampaoli he would months ago. His 49 touches were the fewest of any Argentina outfield player who went 90 minutes. He was borderline invisible.
And his teammates were flat-out bad.
Some of his invisibility, of course, is on Sampaoli, and on those teammates. But Messi cannot escape blame. He sputtered with responsibility on Matchday 1, then was unable to take it when it wasn’t given to him on Matchday 2. He didn’t do enough to get on the ball. He didn’t do enough with it when he did.
Against an opponent intent on suffocating him, rather than rise above, he disappeared.
Losers: Jorge Sampaoli and the Argentinean federation
Until this past week, there was hope that Sampaoli could find a solution. That he could wean Argentina off its Messi Dependencia, or at least find alternative routes to success.
He never did, and resorted to lunatic lineup changes for the Croatia game. But did he ever really have sufficient time?
His and Argentina’s preparation for the tournament was badly mishandled. Messi missed the first set of warmup friendlies in March due to injury, rendering them useless. Sampaoli then got just one May friendly to experiment before the World Cup. The Argentinean soccer federation scheduled a misguided exhibition match in Israel. It was cancelled over safety concerns. Argentina went to Russia with just 90 minutes against Haiti – an experience far from translatable to Iceland or Croatia – under its belt. It therefore went to Russia still unsure of who it was.
And was Sampaoli the right choice in the first place? His insistence on ravenous pressing was an awful match for an old, slow rearguard. It didn’t suit Messi either. Sampaoli was put in position to fail. That’s not on him. It’s on the federation.
Loser: Argentinean randomness
Nonetheless, there are still so many what ifs. What if Icelandic goalkeeper Hannes Thor Halldorsson had guessed the other way? What if Sampaoli had simply started Franco Armani instead of Willy Caballero? What if Caballero’s gaffe had travelled 20 yards in the air instead of 10?
Belief still lingers. Belief in Argentina’s theoretical potential. Belief in Messi. Belief that if only Argentina can luck its way into the knockout round, a solution can be found. And if the answers to any of the above questions had been different, to the knockout round is likely where Argentina would be headed. In addition to all the structural problems and underachieving, a lot of bad luck has left Argentina on the verge of elimination. A lot of unexpected occurrences.
But that was no consolation to Sampaoli as he stormed off down the tunnel. That was no consolation to Messi as he wandered off the field, bereft. Thursday was the culmination of countless faults and shortcomings. And under the utmost pressure, Argentina cracked.
Lost in the Argentina furor will be deserved praise for Croatia, which is on to the last 16 of a World Cup for the first time since the 20th century. It is in pole position to win Group D and avoid France. The quarterfinals beckon. The so-called golden generation – an overused term, but it applies here – is, at long last, coming good.
Loser: Argentinean hope
Argentina is still in with a realistic chance of progression. Its hope rests on a victory over Nigeria on Matchday 3, and on Iceland picking up three or fewer points from its final two games. So the Argentines will be rooting for Nigeria in Group D’s other Matchday 2 fixture.
But with Croatia already qualified, manager Zlatko Dalic said after Thursday’s game that he’ll rest players in the group finale. That bolsters Iceland’s shot at a result there, and cuts further into any leftover Argentinean optimism.
Loser: Javier Mascherano
Javier Mascherano has had great moments in an Albiceleste shirt. This, on Croatia’s third goal, was not one of them:
Frankly, it was embarrassing. And it was emblematic of a performance that felt overly emotional and desperate from start to finish. When fortune turned its back, players’ heads sunk. Frustration boiled over. A few quit.
That’s why, despite the many scenarios that could still see Argentina through, this felt like the end. And it’s why the inquest is underway.
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