Pick whatever disappointment you want from Lionel Messi’s career with Argentina. After all, there are plenty to choose from.

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How ’bout 2010 when, in the midst of his prime, Messi was coached by an explosive, in-over-his-head Diego Maradona and Argentina got smashed in the quarterfinals by a group of upstart Germans? Perhaps 2014 is more your speed when Argentina didn’t concede a shot on target in regulation of the World Cup final, but Gonzalo Higuain missed a breakaway and Mario Gotze scored the goal of the century?

A year later at the Copa America final, Higuain misses another breakaway, the game goes to a shootout, Messi scores the first penalty, everyone else in Argentina misses, and Chile become champions of CONMEBOL.

A year after that, at another Copa America – this time in the hallowed spiritual home of South American soccer… that’s right! East Rutherford, New Jersey – Argentina outshoot Chile 18 to 4 in the final, Higuain misses another breakaway, it goes to penalties, Messi misses the opener, and Chile win once again. Shortly after the game, the defending Ballon d’Or winner announces he’s retiring from the Argentine national team at age 29.

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If you can, think back to that moment for a second and soak it in: the king of club soccer gives up after a decade worth of frustration with the international game. Back then, it would’ve been impossible to comprehend where we are today: Messi’s club career has become a total afterthought, and he’s absolutely loving life with Argentina.

A tiny kid in Rosario, Argentina, is deemed too tiny by every coach until he forces his way onto the field and blows everyone’s mind by dribbling through the bigger kids like a liquid lightning bolt. However, the tiny kid remained tiny: just 4-foot-10 by age 12. His dad decides he needs a growth hormone treatment, the treatment proves expensive, FC Barcelona catch wind of this mini-phenom, and Dad tells Barca they can have his kid if they pay for both of them to move and for the hormone treatment to continue. A contract is signed on a napkin, they switch continents, and the kid becomes the greatest soccer player of all time as his individual brilliance was moulded within the collectivist soccer factory known as La Masia.

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As a former Barcelona youth coach put it: “[Messi is] a fusion of the individualism of Argentinian street soccer and the more team-oriented game that had been Barcelona’s philosophy.”

However, the success he had at Barcelona never quite translated over to Argentina. The biggest reason: randomness. Argentina reached enough tournament finals and, hell, enough extra times and shootouts, that they should’ve simply just lucked into one trophy from the ball bouncing their way.

Of course, it’s not the only reason. The fluid-yet-strict positional system Pep Guardiola instilled at Barcelona was nowhere to be found when Messi swapped the Blaugrana stripes for the Albiceleste. Most managers – in particular Maradona, who opted for a not-since-replicated “four centre-back” system – opted for an unimaginative, defensively stable approach that relied on Argentina’s stars (read: Messi) to make something magical happen a couple of times a game.

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“The problem is that Messi hasn’t been able to play his natural game for Argentina, a team that all too often has relied on that moment of genius from him to save it,” Andreas Campomar, author of “Golazo! The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup: The Complete History of How Soccer Shaped Latin America,” told me before Russia 2018. “The collegiate system he finds at Barcelona just hasn’t been there at the international level.”

Along with the struggles came a question of identity. In 2004, Spain tried to recruit Messi to switch his allegiances to the nation where he spent his entire professional career and adult life. Can you imagine that? Instead, he wanted to go back home.

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While Messi was admired and appreciated by Argentine fans in the way you might admire and appreciate a celestial body you can’t really understand, Maradona was worshipped and fiercely loved. The same went for Carlos Tevez, a player nowhere near as good as Messi, but one who was much more clearly human and who started his career in Argentina with Maradona’s Boca Juniors.

While there is a certain truth to this opinion, I fear that Messi’s strained relationship with Argentina has been somewhat overplayed,” Campomar said. “Part of the reason, however, maybe the fact that he left Argentina for Barcelona at 13 and has never played for a senior domestic side; another part of the reason may be his natural reticence.

“Messi speaks like an Argentinian; he enjoys an Argentinian diet: he is culturally Argentinian. Nevertheless, he does not share with, say, Maradona, that forceful personality. Perhaps he is too humble for an Argentina that demands overt strength in its heroes.”

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Which brings us to Friday’s 3-0 win over Venezuela in Buenos Aires, at Boca’s La Bombonera. Argentina, the defending Copa America champs, had already walked their way to World Cup qualification. The game didn’t matter, so they just had fun. For one of the first times since Messi put on the Argentina shirt, everything looked easy, carefree and in control. Messi scored the third, scuffing a shot into the ground, and — get this — laughing at himself as the ball trickled into the net. It was Argentina’s last competitive match at home before the World Cup, and all the baggage, it seemed like, was gone.

Messi has been booed by Argentine fans before – at a World Cup game, in a tournament where he won the Golden Ball, no less – but not anymore. La Bombonera loved him last week. Instead, now he’s getting booed by fans of his club team: Paris Saint-Germain.

This European season has felt like a half-awake dream, with Messi existing somewhere else, just rarely flickering into the collective consciousness instead of at the centre of it.

The best finisher alive is going through the worst finishing streak of his career. He was a supporting actor for PSG in the Champions League, firmly in the shadow of Kylian Mbappe. In past seasons, his missed penalty against Real Madrid — in a tie they lost, 3-2 – would’ve been a raging talking point in the aftermath of the collapse. Are we sure Messi is clutch? Instead, it came and went.

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It’s still March, and the rest of his 2021-22 season will be spent playing out the string for a team that’s easily going to win a league title that PSG almost always easily win. These games mark the twilight of the greatest player ever. And yet, who cares?

I don’t know what Messi is thinking; we’ve never really known. With Cristiano Ronaldo, there’s very little subtext; it’s all on the surface. With Messi, it’s almost all subtext. The biggest insight into his psyche we’ve ever been given was the fact that he used to vomit before matches. As the great Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano once put it: “I like Messi because he doesn’t think he’s Messi.”

Yet it certainly seems as if Messi is finally enjoying playing for Argentina, while his work with PSG feels like a burden, bordering on a necessary annoyance. With Argentina, the team is built around his diminishing mobility; he’s the old head, pinging passes, leading a generation of high-flying younger stars while his former contemporaries now fill up the team’s coaching staff. With PSG, he’s just another star on a squad built like a basketball team. It’s almost as if he’s full-time for Argentina, part-time for PSG.

The numbers even bear it out, too – sort of. Since the start of June, Messi has played 84% of the available minutes in competitive matches for Argentina — the most of any player, including starting keeper Emiliano Martinez. With PSG, he has played just 55% of the minutes in Ligue 1.

After the Venezuela match, Messi said, “I don’t know what I will do after the World Cup. I am thinking about what is coming. After Qatar I will have to reassess many things.” Argentina probably won’t win the World Cup, much like how every other country probably won’t win the World Cup. But the team itself is in better shape than it has been in since 2006, and the shirt isn’t heavy anymore.

What’s more likely for Messi: a first World Cup or a fifth Champions League trophy before he hangs it up? At least for this year — and for probably the first time ever — you’d have to go with the former.


Note: This article is written by Ryan O’Hanlon and has been published at ESPN FC

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