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article imageCopa America loss shouldn't tarnish Lionel Messi's legacy

By Tyrrell Meertins     Jul 12, 2015 in Sports
Some things aren’t meant to be.
When Gonzalo Higuain and Ever Banega’s terrible penalty attempts failed to beat Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo from the penalty spot in last week’s Copa America final, Lionel Messi may have finally accepted this n
He was so close, yet so far. He could taste it – the sense of success, homeland glory, and the conclusion of the bigoted scrutiny that follows his every move when he laces up his boots for Argentina. An international triumph is the only bit of success that eludes the 28-year-old, and the sole flaw that oddly enables many to question Messi’s greatness.
Big game players, shine brightest in the big games. It’s a popular belief, and to many, Messi hasn’t ‘grabbed a game by the scruff of the neck’ like the greats before us. The Messi that dazzles weekly with Barcelona, leading the club to two trebles in the past decade, has failed to replicate those absurd levels for his country.
Yet while it’s true that Messi has benefited from the Barcelona model and several world-class teammates around him, the momentous heights that have transformed the Spanish club into a European powerhouse would be obsolete without the Argentine.
Put simply, he makes the difference – once solely a devastating finisher, Messi has developed into a fantastic all-round attacking player in his prime that simultaneously plays a dual role. His 58 goals and 28 assists from 57 games was pivotal to Barcelona’s success this season, in a transitional year that welcomed Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, and manager Luis Enrique to the Camp Nou.
The pressure on Messi at the international level, however, is immeasurable.
It’s win or sit in the shadows of Diego Maradona, the man heavily responsible for Argentina’s last World Cup triumph in 1986. Despite playing – on average – approximately 20 club games less than Messi that year, excluding friendlies and qualifiers, a scintillating six game tournament has placed Maradona over a player that has consistently been ahead of the rest – by a considerable distance – for nearly seven years.
With that being said, the problem here isn’t Maradona. At his peak he was a remarkable talent worthy of the acclaim he receives, despite failing to win Copa America, La Liga with Barcelona, and three underwhelming World Cup appearances would be inequitable. The main worry is that Messi has performed superbly in every major international tournament he’s participated in since 2010.
"You can't put all the blame on Messi," said ESPN analyst, Mario Kempes, who scored two goals in the final to lead Argentina to the 1978 World Cup victory.
"We need to take care of him, not criticize him. We worry about a player who is giving his everything for Argentina even though things aren't going well. But there is another player, who has stained the Argentina uniform and yet we never speak of that and we hail him still.
Messi’s time at South Africa was often criticized due to his inability to score – though he was very good, whilst possibly setting a record for recording the most shots off the crossbar and post in one tournament. However, the misconception that he had a poor tournament is false. Maradona’s tactical naivety, the peculiar exclusion of treble winners Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti, combined with Messi’s spatial issues with compatriot Carlos Tevez deprived Argentina of a trip to the semi-finals.
Four years later, Messi, despite not being at his utmost best, was within touching distance of replicating Maradona’s World Cup feat.
Single-handedly guiding a mediocre Argentina side out of the group stage, Messi was instrumental, and undoubtedly Alejandro Sabella’s best performer throughout the tournament – although Messi didn’t score a goal in the knockout round, he virtually created both winners prior to the semifinal. The skewed shot in the final will stay with the Argentine forever, but its difficult imagining Argentina reaching the final, let alone past the group stage, without the captain.
Then there was this year’s Copa America. A year after the disappointment in Brazil, Messi was blessed with better options across the pitch, following arguably his best season of his career, and his performance levels typified Messi’s ambition. Drifting infield from the right, Messi and Pastore offered the creativity and penetration Argentina lacked at the World Cup.
Yet despite Messi’s imperious form, fit teammates, and the lack of genuine elite sides in the tournament, Argentina stumbled in the finals, in what may be deemed their best chance to claim silverware to date. In ways, it was reminiscent of Argentina’s failure on home soil in the previous South American tournament – Messi created chances for his teammates to win matches, but poor finishing was the ultimate downfall.
But did Messi really stumble? Is losing two consecutive major international finals in 12 months considered a failure? A superior German side proved too much for Sabella’s pragmatism – injuries and poor execution from Messi himself, and Higuain also played a factor – whereas Martino’s inability to maximize his captain’s talent and find natural cohesion contributed to last week’s disappointment.
Messi was fairly active in the first half – forcing two of three Chilean defenders into bookings, whilst creating chances from open play and set pieces. Yet the contrast in his first and second half touches remains peculiar. The decision to constantly play short passes into Messi in the first half, and neglect Aguero’s pace against a nervy Chilean back-line thwarted Argentina’s attack.
But, it’s the second half display that's fueled the cynics. Messi was a peripheral figure waiting for his teammates to pass him the ball, opposed to dropping into deeper positions to stamp his authority on the match. Apart from the final kick of normal time inspired by the Argentine captain, Martino’s conservative approach didn’t pose any threat, and Messi was merely a bystander.
When Argentina has faced adversity in the biggest games, pragmatic football has been the preferred approach opposed to playing through Messi. The distance between the Argentine captain and his teammates increases, and the combination plays and support he receives for Barcelona becomes non-existent for his country. Witnessing a team filled with multiple top-class individuals’ collapse in big moments remains one of the few oddities in world football, but it’s developed into a reoccurring theme for Argentina.
In terms of talent, Argentina was undeniably the best side in the competition, yet apart from a semifinal thrashing of Paraguay, the favourites reached their peak in spurts. The abundance of some of the finest strikers in world football struggled against the likes of Uruguay, Colombia and Jamaica, whereas the midfield was constantly overrun in transition.
Similar to previous managers, Messi’s teammates haven’t been good enough. No matter how great Messi may be – and he may be the greatest of all time – the likelihood of individually “leading” your country to glory is improbable. Previous winners of the World Cup and Copa America have been well-rounded cohesive units, whereas Argentina’s search for genuine balance has yet to be elucidated.
Likewise, the barometer of greatness is, and should be measured in the Champions League – the best players compete in this tournament, and the quality of teams, game-play, and overall standard of football is undoubtedly superior. Though it lacks the genuine popularity that the World Cup currently possesses, succeeding at this level is currently the ultimate goal.
Surely Messi will receive a few more opportunities to guide Argentina to the pinnacle of world football, but the dejection displayed over the past 12 months represents a heartbroken man, rather than one filled with optimism. Ultimately it feels like deja-vu – a new manager combined with unchanged personnel has offered disappointing results.
Perhaps an overhaul is required to push Argentina over the hump, but Messi is faced with an important decision ahead of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Surely he’ll want one more chance to guide Argentina to supremacy, but longevity at the club level, and likelihood of reaching another major final may require Messi to assess his future in-depth.
"We have to thank Leo for choosing to play for a country that turned its back on him," said Argentine teammate Lucas Biglia.
"If he needs a break from the national team, Messi knows that the players will support him."
Messi’s best efforts have placed Argentina back to the elite echelon of world football, and though it may not be enough – for the casual football follower – to currently cement his status as the greatest ever, it’s difficult to name another player capable of exceeding his achievements under such circumstances.
For nearly a decade, Messi has dazzled and left us all in awe on a weekly basis, while maintaining unprecedented performance levels. But failure to win an international trophy, whilst producing superb performances – in three different positions over the course of his international career – subsequent to a grueling club season shouldn’t discount his legacy.
Messi may never share the joy that Maradona has with Argentina, but at least he’s kept his end of the bargain.
More about Messi, Argentina, Barcelona, Lionel messi, Copa America
 
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