If it’s any consolation at all to him, which it won’t be, Lionel Messi went out in a classic. Not for him, per se, but Argentina gave surprisingly good sport to a vastly superior France team, even taking a 2-1 lead before finally being steamrolled 4-3 and eliminated in the round of 16 of the World Cup.
And so ended what is very likely Lionel Messi’s final World Cup.
Before the tournament, Messi, who turned 31 not quite a week ago, hinted that his international career could end after this World Cup. “The demand is going to be for this group to get it done [win the World Cup],” he said in an interview on Argentinian television. “We think that if we don’t do it … we are not going to have another possibility.”
That underscored the belief that Messi, who led Argentina to lost finals at the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 Copa America and the 2016 Copa America Centenario – all of them defeats in extra time or on penalties – has yet to win major silverware with his nation and will now probably quit the national team.
Messi has had a complicated relationship with Argentina for as long as he has represented it. Early on, when he couldn’t replicate his form for FC Barcelona, a much better collective, he was accused of not caring about his country, which he’d left to pursue his career at age 13. But even as he became the best player of all time and put his nation on his shoulders again and again, the criticism endured.
He briefly retired after the loss in the 2016 Copa America Centenario final, sauntering over to a pack of stunned Argentine reporters and informing them that he was done. He was coaxed back, but the federation’s perpetual dysfunction, the problematic managers and the endless commuting across the Atlantic have made playing for the Albiceleste a burden as much as a joy.
Messi dreamed of winning the World Cup with Argentina. He never will.
Even if he sticks around, the generation of his peers, the supporting cast on all those deep runs, is quickly aging out. The pipeline is dry. It will only get harder for Messi to win anything, and it already was a long shot going into this tournament.
France went out of its way to try to extend Messi’s World Cup run. Manager Didier Deschamps picked an inexplicably conservative lineup – while Argentina, for its part, didn’t field either of its top strikers, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero, putting Messi in a kind of hybrid striker-playmaker role instead, which didn’t come off.
The French didn’t cover themselves in honor by playing on the counter-attack, given the wealth of both attacking and defensive talent it has. There was simply no reason to play with this much timidity. The midfield and attack are more than capable of dominating possession. And when they do lose the ball, perhaps the best defense in the tournament is there to bail it out.
Yet France mostly ceded the ball. Argentina ran an ill-advised high defensive line. This exposed the slow, patchwork defense on the break and put pressure on a team incapable of keeping the ball in France’s half to keep the ball in France’s half. Quite a lot of Argentina passes went to absolutely nobody.
Embattled manager Jorge Sampaoli, or Messi, or whoever really sets the lineups and tactics — Sampaoli was caught on camera asking Messi whether he should bring on Aguero against Nigeria — made an already rickety team much worse than the sum of its parts.
So the French picked Argentina off on the break. Kylian Mbappe ran off with a loose ball in his own half and won an early penalty, converted by Antoine Griezmann. Yet Angel Di Maria equalized before halftime on the longest goal of the tournament. After the break, the Argentines even gave a final spasm of life as Messi’s shot was deflected into the net, largely unintentionally, by Gabriel Mercado.
It was the first time France went behind in this World Cup, and it wouldn’t quite last 10 minutes. Benjamin Pavard’s magical strike and two Mbappe goals settled things. France could have run up the score before Sergio Aguero closed the gap – at least on the scoreboard – in injury time.
But Messi’s game was symptomatic of his entire tournament. A cry for a penalty was his only real contribution in an invisible first half. In the second, his deflected shot and a late attempt were more or less all he could muster. He had no service from his teammates. Even Messi needs help.
In all, he scored just once this tournament, to put Argentina up against Nigeria, in the victory that, thanks to a very late Marcos Rojo goal, ensured survival from the group stage after a feckless draw with Iceland – including a missed Messi penalty – and a 3-0 hammering at the hands of Croatia.
Messi has still never scored in a World Cup knockout game.
Which doesn’t mean he isn’t the best to ever play soccer. He is. Winning the World Cup is no litmus test for that, for all manner of reasons that have already been argued in this space.
But his trophy ledger will nevertheless feel incomplete in spite of being so abundant.
After the game, Messi halfheartedly accepted some handshakes but mostly looked on with his trademark stoicism as the French celebrated. He may have been thinking back to what may have been his final significant act as an Argentina player. In the 85th minute, he weaved through the French defense in that inimitable Messi style. But then he meekly rolled his finish at goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Messi slumped to his knees and buried his head in the grass.
He knew then that it was over.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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