Four years ago, beneath the outstretched arms of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, we pondered whether Lionel Messi could seal his legend.
In the failure, perceived to be his alone, to lead Argentina to World Cup final victory over Germany, fate conspired to ensure he could not. Not that time at least.
Of course, it seems ridiculous when taking into account his 552 goals for Barcelona, as well as his 64 so far for Argentina, that questions are still being asked abut Messi. But another slow-burning World Cup finals, where he has missed a penalty kick against Iceland and been crowded out completely by Croatia, has meant we are again discussing his sometimes rocky relationship with his home country.
Many Argentina fans are urging Messi to take a game, in the old Scottish parlance. But then this is a familiar narrative, as recalling what was being written and said in 2014 shows.
The difference now is that Argentina stand on the cusp of being eliminated at the first-round stage. Unless they win this evening against Nigeria in St Petersburg, they will be taking their leave of a World Cup at the first-round group stage for the first time since 2002. Even if they win, they could be on the plane home depending on the result between Croatia and Iceland.
These are the days of the phenomenon known as the White Nights in St Petersburg, when it remains daylight even long after midnight. It is now or never for Argentina if they wish to cash in on Messi’s skills on the greatest stage. They need their white knight, the one who got them to this World Cup in the first place with a blistering performance at high altitude against Ecuador in their final, must-win qualifier.
Messi scored a hat trick that night, so claims that he is under-motivated when playing in the light blue and white stripes of Argentina are far off the mark. Another criticism is that he is playing only for himself. There was likely to have been some vanity at play when he overturned his decision to retire after Argentina were beaten in the Copa America final against Chile two years ago.
He clearly eyed Russia 2018 as a chance to win the greatest prize of all and, perhaps, finally wrest the mantle of his country’s greatest player from Diego Maradona. He might already deserve to take this title from Maradona. However, not having carried his nation to a World Cup triumph, to date at least, will always count against him when the comparison is made with such an enduring legend.
It is not as if time remains on his side either. He has just turned 31. According to training ground witnesses at the squad’s base in Bronnitsy, manager Jorge Sampaoli greeted Messi with a kiss on both cheeks when he emerged for training on Sunday, the day of his birthday.
It was a much-scrutinised gesture of seeming warmth amid signs Argentina are on the verge of implosion. Some, while referencing the second half of last week’s 3-0 defeat by Croatia, would contend this has already happened. There are reports of an in-camp punch-up between Javier Mascherano and team-mate Christian Pavon. Goalkeeper Willy Caballero, who made such a disastrous mistake for the first goal against Croatia, is likely to be dropped for debutant Franco Armani tonight. Sampaoli remains in charge for now – with some reports claiming he had been ousted by player power ahead of the final, crucial group game.
Meanwhile, What’sApp audio notes from Diego Simeone, the Atletico Madrid manager and a man many Argentinians would dearly love to be their national team manager, have somehow been made public. He was immensely critical of Messi, whom he suggested was not the player Portugal’s Ronaldo is when playing for his country. Of course, Messi’s old adversary has lit up this World Cup, to further put the pressure on.
But then it seems it has always been thus: Messi battling to lift a mediocre Argentina to a level they last reached while under the spell of Maradona.
It is not only the thought of Messi underperforming once again that keeps Argentina in chilling suspense. Rather, it is what happens next, once he retires from international football – as seems likely after this World Cup, whatever happens.
In the book Touched by God: How We Won the Mexico ’86 World Cup, published last year, Maradona asks in the final chapter, indeed in the final paragraph: “If we want Argentine soccer to get better, if we want another world championship, if we don’t want to let another 30 years go by before bringing the World Cup home again: what comes after Messi?”
It is a question that could become pertinent again as soon as this evening. For the sake of this World Cup, as well as Messi’s reputation in the eyes of his compatriots, let’s hope it doesn’t.