Heading in to the last round of the South American qualifiers, qualification was far from certain for the Argentine national team. They were sitting in sixth spot, needing a victory away against Ecuador to guarantee at least a playoff spot for the 2018 World Cup.
Argentina needed to win, and they did, beating Ecuador 3-1. And what we witnessed was something that we’ve become quite used to seeing from Argentina over the past several years – a one-man show from their talisman, Lionel Messi. Ecuador took the lead in the first minute itself, the Argentine defense splitting open inexplicably. Since then however, it was the Lionel Messi show.
Messi equalized for Argentina after 11 minutes, starting and finishing off a move involving a one-two with di Maria. 7 minutes later he gave Argentina the lead, winning the ball off a defender and firing a thunderous 20-yard drive into the top left corner of the net. He completed his hat-trick on 62 minutes after a magnificent solo run that ended with a brilliant finish.
Cometh the hour, cometh Messi! His performance was not just about the hat-trick. Each one of the goals itself was a masterpiece. It was obvious from the very beginning that Messi was up for it. Every time he got the ball, he looked threatening. He took on the Ecuadorian players and beat them, drew defenders out of position and created space for his teammates. Besides scoring the 3 goals, he also created several opportunities for his teammates including for Mascherano, di Maria and Benedetto.
However, the infuriating thing was this – the rest of the Argentine team appeared listless. Despite the 3-1 scoreline, Argentina weren’t decisively superior to Ecuador. They got through on the back of a sublime performance from Lionel Messi. It was a totally different game when Messi was on the ball, compared to when any of the other Argentinians were on the ball. Only di Maria seemed to show some energy, but even his passing and shooting range seemed well off.
And this is not the first time this has happened. Messi has been almost single-handedly carrying this team for years now. Of the 8 matches Argentina played without Messi this qualification campaign, they managed to pick up only 7 points, winning just 1 of the 8 matches. At that points/game ratio, not only would they have not qualified, but they would’ve finished 8th out of 10 teams, ahead of only Venezuela and Bolivia. Of the 10 matches that Messi has played, they managed to pick up 21 points, losing just 1 out of 10.
By contrast, the qualification for the 2014 World Cup was much more peaceful. Argentina qualified top of CONMEBOL. But even that was driven largely by Messi. Messi did not miss as many games as he did this time around. However, throughout the campaign, Argentina managed to win just 1 match in which Messi did not score – a 3-1 victory over Peru while Messi was out injured. With such stats, it’s perfectly realistic to assume that Argentina would’ve had a very tough time qualifying for the 2014 World Cup too.
Messi ensured that that Argentine team not only qualified top of the South American qualifiers, but also made it through to the final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. At the World Cup in Brazil, Messi was inspirational right from the very first match! Coach Sabella gradually managed to organize the defence into a cohesive unit, and Argentina remained quite solid at the back throughout the tournament. Going forward, the inspiration and impetus was largely provided by one Lionel Messi.
The final was a close affair. Argentina had had their chances, the clearest of which fell to striker, Gonzalo Higuain. But an easy one-on-one miss, and an off-side goal from the former Real striker ensured the score stayed at 0-0. The 2 teams would stay deadlocked at 0-0 after 90 minutes.
The World Cup was to be decided on extra-time. But unfortunately for Argentina and Lionel Messi, it was Germany who nicked it thanks to a Mario Gotze winner in the second period of extra time. Messi, who picked up the Golden Ball and 4 Man of the Match awards in his World Cup campaign, fell just short of lifting the trophy that really mattered. He cut a dejected figure in the end. He had done all he could, but ultimately it was a case of so close, yet so far!
But more heartbreak lay in store for Lionel Messi in the Argentine shirt. The very next year Messi produced another series of sublime performances to lead Argentina to the final of the Copa America 2015. It was another chance for Messi to lift a well-deserved international trophy with Argentina. This time, Argentina’s opponents would be Chile. Just like the World Cup final a year back, the final ended 0-0 after normal time. And just like the World Cup final a year back, Gonzalo Higuain missed a golden opportunity to give Argentina the winner. This time it also ended 0-0 after extra-time. The final was decided via a penalty shootout, which was won by Chile.
Once again, Messi just missed out on a maiden senior international trophy with Argentina. A distraught Messi refused to accept the Golden Ball award, despite being selected as the best player in the tournament.
The very next year, in 2016, the Copa America Centenario was held. Argentina once again made it through to the final, and once again their final opponents would be Chile. In a case of déjà vu, the final would once again finish 0-0 after normal time, and then again after extra-time. And Higuain would once again miss a relatively simple one-on-one goal scoring opportunity. And once again, it was Chile who came out on top in the penalty shootout. This time, Messi would also be among those to miss a penalty for Argentina.
So Messi and Argentina finished runners-up by the tiniest of margins in 3 major international tournaments in a row. Following the 2016 heartbreak, Messi along with some other members of the Argentina squad, announced their retirements from international football.
A massive campaign in Argentina followed to try to convince Messi to reconsider his retirement. The President of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, himself pleaded with Messi, and stated, “We are lucky, it is one of life’s pleasures, it is a gift from God to have the best player in the world in a footballing country like ours. Lionel Messi is the greatest thing we have in Argentina and we must take care of him.”
Messi eventually returned to international football. Thank God for Argentine football he did! He has once again led Argentina safely through to the FIFA World Cup. However, it remains to be seen how this shambolic looking Argentina team performs there.
Sports has its fair share of stories of heartbreaks and fairy tales. Lionel Messi has had his fair share of fairy tales with FC Barcelona. However, his story with Argentina is one of heartache after heartache. Very few players, if any, have deserved to win an international trophy as much as he has. His contribution to Argentine football is immeasurable, and probably something he still gets less credit for than he deserves. With yet another masterclass against Ecuador, he has ensured the 2018 FIFA World Cup will be the next chapter in this story. Many around the world would be hoping it has a happy ending this time!