Still no international glory for Messi, and still no reason to let it tarnish his legacy

06/07/2015 10:09

Still no international glory for Messi, and still no reason to let it tarnish his legacy


What Lionel Messi does on the pitch often seems impossible.

That’s why his lack of a major international trophy stands out like it’s typed in all caps, 100-point font on his resume.

What Lionel Messi does not do for Argentina is among the loudest, most tired topics in world soccer, and it will only get louder in light of the latest failure. Even if he never wins a trophy for La Albiceleste, Messi can lay convincing claim to being the greatest player of all time.

To some, however, he still must win at least one major tournament with Argentina. In 11 seasons with Barcelona’s senior team, Messi has won four Champions League titles and seven La Liga crowns. He’s finished in the top two of the World Player of the Year/Ballon D’Or voting each of the last nine years and rewritten most conceivable European scoring records.

A common refrain is that Messi is the product of his teammates at the Nou Camp, and his rise certainly coincided with Spain’s ascent to world domination. Most of the key components of La Furia Roja’s patient, persistent tiki-taka style have donned Barcelona shirts week in and week out for the past decade.

But along those same lines, Messi has showcased a historically unique deftness of touch and the kind of omnipotent wizardry that will have those who watched him wagging their fingers at anyone who doubts his greatness in the future. A major reason Barcelona has been so lethal is because Messi is there to finish scoring chances with ruthless proficiency, while the lack of a truly great striker has been nagging Spain for years.

There’s no question Messi’s form for Argentina hasn’t matched his form for Barcelona, but the argument against him based on that fact falls apart rather quickly. It’s almost impossible to perform as Messi does for Barcelona as it is, so now he’s supposed to replicate it with lesser teammates? Would you rather have him succeed internationally, a more glamorous but infrequent stage restricted by one’s citizenship, or at the club level, where teams have their pick of the best players in the world regardless of nationality? Spanish legend Iker Casillas famously said that winning Real Madrid’s 10th Champions League trophy meant more than winning Spain’s first World Cup, so in that light, Messi’s achievements are even more impressive.

Unfortunately for Messi, his drought is also intertwined with his country’s. It’s been 22 years since Argentina won the 1993 Copa America, and its exits from the last two major international competitions — an extra-time loss in the 2014 World Cup final and Saturday’s shootout loss in the Copa America final — have been soul-crushing reminders that one of the greatest players of all time has yet to drag his country to the top of a podium and out of a quagmire of failure.

Diego Maradona did that several times, including at the 1986 World Cup, and he was named joint FIFA Player of the 20th Century for his efforts. Despite all his personal transgressions (and his own proclamations), Argentine fans still hail Maradona as the giant of the nation’s soccer history.

But maybe that honor doesn’t matter as much to Messi. He joined Barcelona’s youth ranks when he was 13 years old and lives in Spain in the offseason. Nobody’s accusing Messi of slacking for Argentina, but perhaps he doesn’t feel the same pull toward greatness when he puts on the jersey considering his life has been rooted across the Atlantic for 15 years.

That doesn’t stop him from routinely putting Argentina in positions to win, despite being as closely marked as any player in the world. His four goals during the group stage of last summer’s World Cup almost singlehandedly propelled Argentina to the knockout stages, while his picturesque pass sprang Ezequiel Lavezzi late in regulation of the Copa America final and could have changed the outcome if Lavezzi and Gonzalo Higuain could have finished a golden opportunity.

So Messi doesn’t score every game for Argentina. Isn’t asking him to a rubber-stamped advocacy of his greatness?

He’ll have more shots at international glory, starting with next summer’s Copa America Centenario and continuing through the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Copa America. Messi’s international career isn’t barren, having won the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship and the 2008 Olympic gold medal in Beijing.

But those are amateur tournaments, and they won’t change the argument.

No matter how amateur of an argument it is.


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