Lionel Messi’s smile was melancholic as he answered the reporter’s question after Argentina’s loss to Chile in the 2016 Copa America final.
“That’s it for me, I’m done with the national team,” said Messi. “Like I said before, we lost four finals and it’s just not for me.”
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The anguish was evident on Messi’s face in that interview, where he announced his international retirement in the immediate aftermath of the loss.
When asked if his decision was final, he was non-committal but pointedly added how it just had to be him to miss the decisive first penalty in the shootout.
For a man gifted a left foot that God created on Sunday, someone consecrated by millions across the world, it’s fitting that Messi is a strong believer in the power of destiny.
It’s something he often evokes when talking about Argentina. In the viral dressing room clip of his speech ahead of the 2021 Copa America final, he spoke of how there was no such thing as coincidence that the tournament was shifted from Argentina to Brazil.
“God brought it here for us to lift at the Maracana, boys,” he said passionately.
Messi’s speech ahead of the Copa America final will give you goosebumps. pic.twitter.com/48DpAcatiU
— J. (@Messilizer) November 2, 2022
Qatar 2022 will almost certainly be his closing act on the international stage. It is now or never for Messi but in one sense, so has been each of the last three World Cups.
In 2010, with Diego Maradona as manager, it felt written in the stars for the king and the heir to restore glory to Argentina for the first time since 1986. However, reality, and Germany, came crashing down on romance in South Africa.
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil coincided perfectly with the crest of Messi’s career, when he entered the tournament having won four consecutive Ballon d’Ors in the previous six years.
The supporting cast of Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria, Javier Mascherano and Kun Aguero were arguably at the peak of their powers – the ingredients for success could not have been more ripe. An appearance in the final where they were eventually felled by Germany belied a mediocre showing that saw them score just two goals after the group stages.
“It is now or never for us, there is no more. We have to see this as our final World Cup and look at it as such and take advantage of the opportunity,” Messi said.
It’s a quote that would have applied to Argentina today but in actuality was said ahead of the World Cup in Russia in 2018.
They arrived as one of the oldest teams in the tournament, having secured qualification through the skin of their teeth. Argentina’s campaign was running on fumes from the start and it inevitably imploded in the round-of-16 against France.
Doha felt light years away from Kazan on that afternoon and many, including Messi, expected it to be his final bow.
Qatar is not a now-or-never World Cup for Messi, it’s a postscript for a movie that was supposed to have ended in Russia.
It’s tough to make sense of Messi’s World Cup performances. While there have been moments of genius – the injury-time winner against Iran in Brazil, the assist for Di Maria against Switzerland in the round-of-16, the touch and goal against Nigeria in 2018 – he is yet to score a goal in the knockout stages of the tournament.
For Argentina, he has seldom recreated the levels he consistently hits for his clubs. Close your eyes and think of Messi and the first image that comes up is of him in the blaugrana of Barcelona, hands aloft as the Camp Nou sways to his music.
Argentina has always been second fiddle to Messi’s iconography.
The searing images of Messi in blue and white are predominantly coloured by pain – the forlornness on his face as he posed with the Golden Ball in 2014, the uncontrollable tears in the Metlife arena after the Copa America loss in 2016, the manner in which he ignored Olivier Giroud’s outstretched hand in the tunnel after the loss to France in 2018.
While the Copa America triumph last year was a rare silver lining, it felt seismic not as much for the magnitude of the win as for the context behind it.
But, it isn’t just the lack of on-field success that led to the fraught nature of Messi’s relationship with Argentinian fans.
Jonathan Wilson, author of Angels with Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina, believes the roots of this issue can be found in an editorial published in the iconic Argentinian sports magazine El Gráfico in 1928.
“[The writer] says if you were to erect a statue of Argentinian football, it would be the urchin child in the streets, he’d have this massive dark hair, he’d be short and squat. His teeth would be worn down by eating yesterday’s bread, his shirt would be eaten by the mice [and] he’s coming from an impoverished background,” Wilson told Al Jazeera.
“When Maradona arrives it’s like ‘this is the one’ and broadly speaking, he lived up to that with huge lows whereas Messi, it’s a different physical type, he doesn’t fit the template, so I think there’ll always be that resistance in Argentina.”
While Messi’s move to Spain at a young age also added to the resistance he faced in Argentina, Wilson believes the turning point in his relationship with the fans came after his retirement announcement in 2016.
“When he missed the penalty against Chile, he was clearly so devastated. His tears and retirement that shocked people into ‘we need him back’ and there was this outpouring of ‘please don’t retire’,” added Wilson.
Such was the intensity of this sentiment in Argentina that the arrivals board of the subway in Buenos Aires read “No te vayas Lio” (Lio, don’t go).
He didn’t go back then but he will now.
Maybe football does owe Messi a World Cup, in the same way it owes Steven Gerrard a Premier League, Gigi Buffon a Champions League and Franck Ribery a Ballon d’Or.
Greatness is not always perfect and not winning the World Cup will not take away from Messi’s legacy.
But winning it would add so much.