By the time a humiliated Argentina emerged from the dressing room in Nizhny Novgorod, it was late – in so many ways.
A stony-faced Lionel Messi at least led the way here, but this time with ample support as the entire squad followed tightly behind…and right on through the mixed zone without stopping once. Argentina were at last singing from the same hymn sheet in this World Cup by not saying anything all.
Their result and performance against Croatia said enough, and some around the Argentina camp – not least Sergio Aguero, who reacted very badly to one question about his manager – might feel Jorge Sampaoli was already saying too much in his press conference.
The frazzled-looking coach had attempted to take full responsibility for this crushing reversal, but instead only put more focus on others with some curious words. Sampaoli said Argentina were “emotionally broken” after the first goal and “lost their way”, before adding of that calamity: “I don’t think it’s realistic to put the burden on Willy Cabalerro.”
Of course not, because everyone knows that the burden – the focus, the debate – will be put on Messi.
He knew it. Everyone knew it. And everyone knows it is now highly likely he will not get his hands on the unique trophy, but instead maybe end his career in the competition with a uniquely bad performance from a player of such historic quality.
In truth, it didn’t feel or look right before the game.
The revelation that Messi had locked himself away in his room on the Sunday because he was so distraught at that penalty miss against Iceland was followed by a strangely subdued demeanour before the game. This did not seem like his usual introverted nature, but instead something more intense, as he so curiously and conspicuously fixed his hair while looking so ashen-faced as the anthems played.
It was one of many haunting images for Argentina on a tortuous night, but there was one moment that highlighted how profound the problem has become on the pitch. It was when the score was still a mere 1-0 and Sampaoli had finally – and desperately – introduced Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, with the latter almost immediately doing well to work a chance on the left and cut a ball back to the area near the box where Messi would usually be arriving. He arrived this time, but accompanied…and not by a defender.
It was instead Max Meza again occupying the same space as Messi, again taking a ball that should have gone to the captain, and again doing nothing with it. The winger could only feebly hit the ball at Danijel Subasic.
This was the story of the night, and a highly strange one at that, as the country’s best player so often found himself on the fringes of their play or bypassed altogether.
It was something that World Cup winner Jorge Valdano couldn’t help but notice at half-time on Argentine television stating Sampaoli’s side were “playing as if Messi didn’t exist”
It was utterly bizarre, and some of this was undeniably down to the manager’s strange set-up – something that seemed to only make sense to Sampaoli.
Messi should for one have been so much more central, especially against a midfield featuring Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who were facing the tired legs of Enzo Perez and Javier Mascherano. Messi wasn’t there, and instead may now be going home, all as his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo soars to greater heights.
The debate around the two has now reached truly hysterical levels, with all context apparently ignored and the latest development seemingly consuming everything. Amid all the ridiculous talk that Ronaldo steps up for his country in a way Messi doesn’t, it seems too easily forgotten that the Portuguese suffered poor tournaments at Euro 2008, 2010 and the 2014 World Cup when seemingly at his peak, as well as similar problems to Messi in the first two games of Euro 2016. Some of these were as the Argentine was dragging his side to the finals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 and 2016 Copa Americas, as well as to this very tournament. The point here is not to do down someone as ridiculously good as Ronaldo, but to point to a wider context, and something that is now a real wonder with a player like Messi.
If the role Sampaoli had set for him was eyebrow raising, what was utterly astonishing was that – as Argentina’s need got greater – Messi did not take matters into his own hands as he’s done so often in the past with his own greatness. He instead did nothing. He didn’t have a single shot on target, or a single ball into the box.
To anyone any way familiar with his career, this is just shocking – and against his character. It also points to something deeper here, and those more profound problems.
It’s ultimately impossible not to think that this has just run its course, and he’s mentally burned out with the immense responsibility in a national side already renowned in the game as one of the most psychologically complicated around.
Trace Messi’s career with Argentina since 2011, and he reached the start of his prime years. Messi started to really produce for the national side, hauling them to finals, but the rest of the team didn’t really respond in the manner expected. It didn’t quite haul them up. It instead had an inverse effect, with so many players – and some of them stars – becoming increasingly dependent on Messi in an already lopsided squad. At the same time, the disappointments only became deeper and deeper, too. The re-assessed retirement of 2016 revealed so much in this regard.
That was then followed by the ridiculous situation in 2018 qualifying when there was such a pathetic difference between results with Messi and without him: a mere six points from a possible 24 when he wasn’t there; 21 from a possible 30 when he was.
Quite the difference, quite the dependency. Quite the responsibility.
One feeling was that qualification would provide the release from pressure that the team required. It has instead just seen everything fall in, a breaking point reached.
Similarly, the team just became more broken, as Diego Simeone argued after the Croatia defeat. “The team is wrong, it’s just wrong.”
Sampaoli’s attempts since qualification to find a quick solution to the side’s series of flaws just instantly made things worse. So, they reached Russia 2018, with this. Messi was expected to excel and produce his best World Cup in a system that just didn’t work and in a starting XI that consisted of the following:
- Three players who were past it or never there in Javier Mascherano, Willy Caballero and Enzo Perez.
- Five players who were relative unknowns or regular journeymen in Max Meza, Eduardo Salvio, Gabriel Mercado, Nicolas Tagliafico and Marcos Acuna.
So much for this super-talented squad. It wasn’t on the pitch.
Amid that, it isn’t impossible to imagine even a player as psychologically resilient as Messi was subconsciously unable to rally himself in the same way, especially since the responsibility he carries is so resolutely energy-sapping. That situation instead feels quite likely.
And while Ronaldo may never have had talent like Dybala or Aguero alongside him with Portugal, it’s relatively irrelevant since he never faced a situation as utterly dysfunctional as this with them either.
There are much bigger problems with Argentina than arranging their best players. They now have a massive challenge in the last round of games, and will require greater levels of genius from Messi than we’ve ever seen from him before.
In that regard, it’s late…but it’s not too late.
It just might be too much. Messi might have already been through too much with this team.