Highs and Lows with La Albiceleste: Lionel Messi’s Argentina story

 After leaving his native Argentina for Catalonia aged 13 in order to go on receiving the growth hormone treatment he needed to achieve his dream of becoming a professional footballer, Lionel Andres Messi began life in Barcelona youth teams in his preferred number 10 role, also occasionally occupying the right wing. In order to find a place in Frank Rijkaard’s first team, he had to adapt to an unfamiliar left wing position, due to his preferred positions being occupied by team stars Ronaldinho and Deco. Next Messi became a False 9 under Pep Guardiola, where he successfully converted into an end product machine. Under Luis Enrique he drifted back out to a wider role to accommodate Luis Suarez, but in a much freer role than he’d had under Rijkaard which allowed him to drop deeper or move central whenever he wanted. This allowed Messi to transition into a complete forward, which would help enormously as the foundations around Messi at Barcelona began to crumble both on and off the pitch. At this point, Messi was being asked to do virtually everything in attack, and somehow he did, even making that look effortless most weekends, scoring and assisting at will. 

A shock departure to PSG eventually exposed Messi as human as he initially struggled to adapt to his first new home in over 20 years, his confidence infront of goal suddenly down, rather than being the builder of every attack, he was suddenly being overlooked in the build-up. The start of his second season in Paris has however shown that to be nothing more than a small blip, as he is back to finding the net with the same certainty he has had for all but one of his last dozen plus campaigns. Baring that one little dip where Messi took time to adjust to a new league, country and teammates, the Argentine has brilliantly adapted to everything asked of him at club level. Nearly 700 club goals, almost 300 club assists, hundreds of man of the match awards, 6 European Golden Shoes and 7 Balon D’ors have been his contribution to helping his sides win over 30 trophies. 

Though no club career can be perfect, especially at a club like Barcelona which has always been prone to drama and relatively few periods of calm stability, the finger of blame could never have been pointed at Leo. He went on with his job of keeping Barca winning league titles and in the latter stages of the Champions League, almost single-handedly preventing the chaos which has since befell the Blaugrana with successive Champions League group stage exits. 

In his career with the national team however, the journey has been much more of a rollercoaster. It has featured both the highest highs and lowest lows of his football life. 

In order to appear for Barcelona youth sides, Messi had to obtain Spanish citizenship. This meant that he was a dual Argentine-Spanish national making him eligible for either nation. Seeing the talent, Barcelona’s Director of Football alerted the Spanish Football Federation about the possibility of having the youngster join Spain’s ranks. Upon being approached, it was not something Leo ever gave any consideration to. He was Argentine, he would always be Argentine, and like Diego Maradona and Pablo Aimar who were his idols growing up, he too wanted to wear the shirt of the Albiceleste. The Argentine FA were aware of this Spanish threat however, and moved to remove it by arranging two friendly matches for their Under-20s side, made specifically to finalise Messi’s status as an Argentine player with FIFA. 

Messi’s debut in Argentina colours came 5 days after his 17th Birthday against Paraguay. Lionel wasted little time in showing his nation they had been right to move quickly to secure his services. In the 8-0 win, Messi assisted two goals and scored another. Receiving the ball in space with yet more to run into, Messi slalomed between 2 Paraguayans before calmly rounding the keeper and passing into the empty net. Leo was subsequently named in the squad for the 2005 South American Under 20 Championship. Messi featured in all 9 games Argentina played, but only started 3, his hormone deficiency still deemed to leave him too short of stamina to complete full matches. Regardless, he netted 4 in his first 3 appearances at the Championships, regularly looking unstoppable as he dribbled the ball from deep until close enough to rip a shot which he did past both Venezuela and Bolivia keepers. In the final match of the Championships, Argentina had to beat Brazil in order to secure 3rd place and qualify for the Under 20 World Cup. It was Messi who took them there, his winning goal earning his side a 2-1 win.

Messi began the 2005 Under 20 World Cup on the bench, he was brought on as a sub but unable to turn around the opening game against USA, which Argentina lost 1-0. In the lead-up to the tournament, Messi had been working with a personal trainer to increase his muscle mass, to make him fit and strong enough to compete from the beginning of matches. He believed himself ready, as did his teammates who intervened on his behalf by asking their manager to start Leo in their next match against Egypt. He did and Messi grabbed the opening goal of the game, finishing a Zabaleta cross. From there Messi and his teammates didn’t look back. They went into the final group game against Germany needing a win to advance to the Quarters ahead of their opponents. Messi created the games only goal charging into the box before squaring it for Cardozo to finish. 

In the Round of 16, Argentina met Colombia and found themselves 1-0 down early in the second half. They were behind for just 5 minutes however, with Messi picking the ball up in midfield before a one-two put him in on goal, where he blasted it in at the near post. Argentina’s path to the last 8 was secured with a 93rd minute winner. A day after his 18th birthday, Leo took to the field to take on Spain, the side who in another universe he could have been lining up as part of. La Roja featured talent such as Cesc Fabregas, David Silva and Juanfran. The South Americans struck first but that lead was cancelled out to send the sides in level at half time. Oberman put Argentina back infront, before Messi pushed the game further out of Spain’s reach just 2 minutes later. A poor Spanish clearance reached only as far as Leo who juggled the ball over his own head with his right, then used his left to push himself in on goal before calmly slotting it away with the same foot. 

More Messi magic would follow in the Semi-Final against Brazil in Utrecht. Just 7 minutes into the game, Messi made his traditional move from the right wing, cutting central with the ball glued to his foot before letting fly a wicked shot into the top corner. Brazil equalised with a quarter of an hour to play but Argentina would not be denied, netting a 93rd minute winner. This was the second time they’d won a knockout game in stoppage time and secured their place in the final where they would meet Nigeria. 

Messi gave Argentina the lead in the final from the penalty spot, having been brought down whilst teasing and tormenting the Nigerian defence. The African side responded just after the break but Messi was on hand to put Argentina back in control by converting a second penalty. With both kicks he sent the keeper the wrong way. Messi’s brace in this final was enough to win the trophy for Argentina aswell as secure Leo the golden boot, his 6 goals in the Finals more than anyone else. To noone’s surprise Messi also won the award for best player at the tournament, he had outperformed all the game’s best young players by a considerable margin and had given Barcelona & Argentina fans watching alot to be excited about. In the 6 matches he started, he either scored or assisted in every one, scoring in every knockout stage game. 

Messi’s performances drew comparisons to Maradona’s over 25 years earlier at the 1979 World Youth Championships, where Diego led Argentina to victory also scoring 6 goals.  

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Leo’s senior debut for the national side would come the very next month against Hungary. It would not go anywhere near as smoothly as his Under 20′s debut against Paraguay in which he scored. Instead Messi would receive his first senior red card in his very first minute after entering the pitch. Being pulled back by the Hungarian defender, Messi had swung his arm in order to free himself from the defenders grip and was judged to have caught the Hungarian in the face, a straight red was shown to him. The decision seemed incredibly harsh, especially given this was a friendly match, but Messi was sent to the dressing room early where he was left to deal with his considerable frustration and disappointment, with the moment he’d always dreamed of quickly having turned into a nightmare. 

2 of Messi’s next 3 appearances for Argentina would be defeats in World Cup qualifiers, but his first 90 minutes for the senior side would result in victory at home to Peru where he was brought down for a penalty which Riquelme converted. Leo’s first International goal would come in January of 2006 in his 6th cap during a 3-2 friendly match loss against Croatia. Shortly afterwards, Messi would suffer an injury which kept him out for the rest of Barcelona’s 05/06 season, forcing him to miss the Champions League final. Despite missing the last few months of the season, Messi was fit to go to the 2006 World Cup and still did enough in his 25 appearances for Barcelona that campaign to justify his selection. 

After watching from the bench as Argentina won their opening match 2-1 against tournament debutants Ivory Coast, he became the youngest player to play for Argentina at a World Cup since 1934 when he came on for Maxi Rodriguez with a quarter of an hour to go in their 2nd game against Serbia & Montenegro. It was a good time to enter the fray, with Argentina leading 3-0 in a game they played with all the swagger of a team who believed they could go all the way.

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Messi assisted Argentina’s 4th just 3 minutes after coming on, providing Hernan Crespo with an empty net after passing across the six-yard box. After Carlos Tevez had made it 5, Lionel Messi finished the scoring off for his side, confidently beating the keeper to give the Argentine fans, many of whom had clamoured for his inclusion in the squad, a reason to get even more excited about this emerging talent.

With qualification assured for both Argentina and their final group opponents Holland, manager Jose Pekerman rotated his side and gave Messi what was his one and only start at the finals. The 0-0 draw was enough to secure top spot for the Argentines on goal difference, which meant set up a meeting with Mexico. After a goal apiece in the opening 10 minutes in Leipzig, noone scored again for the remainder of normal time. Messi was brought on in the 84th minute and looked bright during Extra-Time which Argentina won after one of the best goals of the tournament by Maxi Rodriguez.

The Quarter-Finals saw a clash between Argentina and host Germany at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. For 2 hours Messi watched and waited, but his time never came. Instead, Pekerman introduced Julio Cruz as his attacking option off the bench and Messi could be no more than a spectator as Argentina exited on penalties following misses from Roberto Ayala and Esteban Cambiasso. Despite his inexperience, many pondered what may have been had Pekerman instead turned to Messi.

After the 06/07 season where Messi had established himself as one of Barcelona’s best and most important players with 17 goals in 36 games, including a hat-trick against Real Madrid and one of the best goals ever with his rendition of Maradona’s Goal of the Century against Getafe, heading into the 2007 Copa America which was staged in Venezuela there was mass Argentine excitement over this just turned 20-year old with the long hair, with whom comparisons with icon Diego Maradona were already being made.

This excitement only grew when on the eve of the tournament Messi hit his first brace for Argentina in a 4-3 win over Algeria, the friendly taking place at his spiritual home of Camp Nou. Messi started his side’s first game of the tournament, a Group C encounter with USA, to earn his 14th cap. After falling behind to a penalty, Argentina responded almost instantly through Hernan Crespo and the sides went into the dressing rooms level. An hour into the game, Argentina completed the turnaround, when Messi found Crespo with a through pass, allowing the striker to score his brace. Pablo Aimar made it 3-1, before Tevez who had replaced Messi with 10 minutes to go added his name to the scoresheet to give Argentina a convincing win.

Argentina went behind early again against Colombia and it was again Hernan Crespo with the equaliser, after Lionel Messi was adjudged to have been fouled in the box. Juan Roman Riquelme then scored a brace, one with his head and one with a free kick into the bottom corner to send Argentina into the break 3-1 to the good. Colombia scored in the 76th minute to promise a nervy final quarter of an hour, but the final goal of the match was scored by Diego Milito of Argentina.

Messi started the final group match on the bench but was on the pitch when Javier Mascherano scored the only goal of the game to put Argentina through with maximum points. They faced Peru in the Quarter-finals, and after a first half in which they were unable to break them down, Argentina took the lead 2 minutes into the second half. Messi doubled the advantage with half an hour to go to get his first knockout stage goal in a senior tournament and Argentina in the end ran out 4-0 winners.

The Copa America Semi-Finals saw a repeat of the previous years’ World Cup round of 16 game as Argentina faced Mexico. Right on the verge of half-time Argentina took the lead with a brilliant clipped free-kick from Riquelme finished off by Gabriel Heinze. Argentina’s second goal was the official goal of the tournament, the ball is played from the full-back into the chest of Carlos Tevez who helps it on to Messi, left in acres of space on the right-hand side, he takes a touch to put the ball into the box, then chips it with the lightest and most delicate of touches over an unsuspecting goalkeeper whose hand cannot stretch far enough to keep it out. A goal of that quality in a Copa America semi-final announces Messi for the first time on the international stage, a goal so special he makes the world sit up and take notice if they weren’t already. Riquelme adds Argentina’s 3rd from the spot and they are into the final, where there will be a repeat of the final of 3 years prior, against their biggest of enemies Brazil.

Going into the game Argentina were the clear favourites, they had scored 16 goals in 5 matches to reach the final and they had by the far better team. Brazil were without their captain Lucio, Emerson, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Adriano as they sent a squad of mostly deputies in their place rather than regular first-teamers, due to injury and fatigue of their usual stars. On top of that stand-in captain Gilberto Silva was also injured for the final, with Elano, Mineiro and Josue (who had a combined 22 caps going into the competition) competing in midfield against Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Mascherano and Esteban Cambiasso (108 combined caps). In attack Argentina had a 3 of Riquelme, Tevez and Messi which had been working to devastating effect to that point, whereas Brazil’s attack featured Robinho, Wagner Love and Julio Baptista.

For the third time in 6 games, Argentina conceded inside the first 10 minutes, lasting just four before Baptista found the top corner with a wonderful finish that left the keeper rooted to the spot. Riquelme came close to equalising when he hit the post, but the next goal was scored by an Argentinian. Unfortunately, though it was into the wrong net, as Roberto Ayala diverted a cross into his own goal.

With Argentina committing bodies to the attack desperately trying to find a goal to get them back into the contest, Brazil hit them on the counter and it was finished off by Messi’s future Barcelona teammate Dani Alves. With 20 minutes to go Argentina were 3-0 down and in search of a miracle. Messi rounded the keeper and would have pulled one goal back, but the flag went up against him for offside. So after scoring 16 goals and conceding just 3 in making the final, Argentina had fell at the last hurdle. They had had it all their own way up to that point and weren’t ready for a team able to stand up to them. Lionel Messi made the team of the tournament but it would have been scant consolation as La Pulga was forced to taste final defeat for the first time. 

The following year Messi was competing for Argentina in another major tournament, this time the Summer Olympics for the Argentina Olympic team. Leo’s chance at representing Argentina in Beijing appeared under threat with Barcelona reluctant to let him leave for a tournament which would take place in August, delaying his availability to be back with their side. Messi desperately wanted to take this once in a lifetime opportunity and eventually Barca relented. It was Messi who opened the scoring in his side’s first match against Ivory Coast, calmly finishing a one on one having been put in on goal. Argentina regained the lead after the African side equalised, with Leo’s shot being parried only as far as Lautaro Acosta, who had a simple tap-in to ensure 3 opening game points. A 1-0 win over Australia ensured qualification to the knockout stage so Leo was rested for the 3rd group game, a 2-0 win over Serbia.

 He was back to take on the Netherlands in the Quarter-Finals and got his side off to the ideal start with a goal in the 14th minute which came about when he charged down a misplaced pass from the Dutch defence, sprinted between the two defenders then rounded the keeper before carefully slotting into the net. An equaliser later that half eventually led to extra-time where Messi again made all the difference, his defence splitting pass finding Di Maria who put Argentina back in front with seconds remaining in the first half of extra time. They held on and went through to meet rivals Brazil in the Semi-Finals. 

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Here against a Brazilian team which included Ronaldinho, Messi was able to exact revenge for the Copa America loss as this time it was his team coming out 3-0 winners. The Gold Medal match saw a meeting with another familiar opponent in Nigeria. The only goal was scored by Di Maria who was found by Messi in the 58th minute. The winger found himself in acres of space with just the keeper to beat and he did so stylishly with a classy dink. It was to be the only goal of the game and with it Messi was an Olympic Gold Medallist. No best player award was given at the tournament though a special mention for Messi was made by FIFA who stated that “Messi posed defenders more problems than anyone else at the tournament.” 

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Back with the senior side and a run of 1 win in 7 qualifiers had complicated Argentina’s task of ensuring their place in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. With 8 games left to save themselves, the iconic figure of Diego Maradona was tasked with turning things around, despite his complete absence of managerial success to that point. His first competitive match in charge would signal the start of a new era for another reason, with Messi wearing for the first time the number 10 shirt his new manager had made famous. A 4-0 win over Venezuela with a goal and assist from Leo got things off to a good start. What followed just days later however couldn’t have been predicted by anyone, as Argentina fell to what is likely the worst result in the nations history, losing 6-1 in Bolivia. 3 more defeats followed in their next 4 qualifiers, and things were starting to look very desperate. Argentina could afford no more slip-ups in their final 2 games, if they faltered again they would become the first Argentina side to fail to make the World Cup for 40 years. 

The Albiceleste held their nerve, but required late winners against both Peru and Uruguay to qualify by the skin of their teeth. Messi who had netted 85 goals in 108 Barcelona matches in the two seasons prior to the World Cup was struggling to find his best form in an Argentina shirt, having scored just four times in 18 qualifiers. He had alternated between playing on the wing and as a second striker and neither position had garnered positive results. Messi and Maradona discussed a solution, with Leo advising his boss to play him back in the number 10 position where he could see more of the ball and feed the two out and out strikers in front of him. 

This seemed to work in the opening game against Nigeria, as Messi dribbled through bodies and put an early chance on a plate for Gonzalo Higuain, who missed from point-blank range (they’ll be more of that). Leo then forced a good save out of Vincent Enyeama in the Nigeria goal with an effort from outside the box, and Argentina took the lead from the resulting corner, with an excellent header from Heinze. Messi forced another couple of excellent stops out of Enyeama who prevented him from getting on the scoresheet, but the early signs were atleast promising.

This promise continued against Korea Republic at Soccer City, Johannesburg. A free-kick whipped in by Messi deflected in off the shin of Lee Chung-yong and Higuain then doubled the lead. A mistake by Martin Demichelis let Korea back into the contest, but the 2 goal lead was restored in the 2nd half when Higuain profited from a tap-in after Messi’s shot off the post fell to his feet. Argentina’s number 9 then netted his hattrick after a lovely move involving Messi and Aguero, the latter completing the play by putting the ball on Higuain’s head for the goal.

In the Argentine’s last match of Group C they went into half-time level against Greece, mostly due to their keeper Alexandros Tsorvas, who was the star of the half, the pick of his stops being from a brilliant effort from Messi which was dipping just under the bar until he palmed it over. After Demichelis had given Argentina the lead, Messi (captaining the side in the absence of Mascherano) continued to get closer and closer to his first goal of the finals. After gliding past a defender as though not there, he leathered a shot that beat Tsorvas but could not beat the post. With a minute to go Messi came close yet again, dribbling around a defender before his powerful shot was blocked by the keeper’s hands, the ball falling directly to substitute Martin Palermo who was left with the goal gaping and tucked it away.

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The Round of 16 saw them meet a familiar opponent in Mexico. Argentina broke the deadlock on 26 minutes when keeper Oscar Perez could not gather in Messi’s throughball for Tevez, only pushing it back to Leo’s feet who lifted it on to the head of Tevez for 1-0. Higuain made it two after a horrible error in the Mexican defence, but they could do little about the third after Tevez hit an absolute rocket into the top corner to put the game to bed. A good goal from Javier Hernandez made it 3-1 with 20 to go, but it never seemed likely to be more than a consolation.

With 10 scored and only 2 conceded, Argentina seemed in a good place. There would be no Quarter-Final rematch between Maradona and England, after they suffered a 4-1 defeat to another old foe of Diego’s, the Germans. His side got off to the worst possible start falling behind to Thomas Muller inside 3 minutes, and it didn’t get better from there. Dreadful marking allowed Lukas Podolski to square for Klose to walk it in for 2-0 in the 68th minute. 6 minutes later and Germany were beginning to make their opponents look stupid, playing with huge confidence Schweinsteiger dribbled into the box at will and squared it for another German tap-in, this time finished by Arne Freidrich. With a minute to go, the beating was complete when a failed one-two between Messi and Aguero led to a counter-attack which ended in Mesut Ozil brilliantly picking out Klose who bagged his second and Germany’s fourth.

The warning signs which had been there in qualifying were again exposed on the big stage as Argentina met a top side for the first time at the finals. Messi had gone into his second World Cup with the experience of being a fringe player at the 2006 World Cup, he dealt with the pressure of being a starter at the 2007 Copa America, and he’d experienced winning at the Olympics. In his fledgling years with his national side he’d already evolved from talented young winger to the star player, the man who would be judged most harshly if Argentina did not deliver.

It was thought that aged 23 he would be ready to grab this World Cup and do special things in the same way his manager had 24 years prior. But it hadn’t quite worked out. Messi had played well at the tournament, playing a key role in many of his sides goals. The stats would bear out that he’d given a decent account of himself, all that is except the one that matters most at a major tournament and that’s goals scored, and Messi despite coming close on several occasions had been unable to find the net. This was to be the final game in charge for Maradona and including a friendly match against the Republic of Ireland which was new manager Daniel Passarella’s 1st game at the helm, Messi had scored just 1 goal in 15 Argentina games.

Going into the 2011 Copa America, expectation on Messi was even greater than at the World Cup the year before. He had just hit 53 goals in 55 appearances for Barcelona to win the treble, and even with the national side his record had improved to 4 goals in his last 6 appearances as he headed into the tournament. The 24 year old was now already been discussed as potentially the greatest footballer to ever live, but there was pressure to deliver for Argentina in this tournament which would take place on home soil. 

The hosts began the tournament against Bolivia and had many good chances to take the lead in the first half. The most guilt-edged falling to Carlos Tevez, who got a header completely wrong, missing the goal altogether, after Messi had chipped a free-kick onto his head. Messi then found Lavezzi who dragged his shot wide, and then Tevez missed another chance created by Messi. Lionel then tried a shot of his own which the keeper could only spill to Cambiasso but he was unable to finish.

Argentina were made to rue these missed opportunities when Bolivia took the lead early in the second half. Edivaldo Rojas flicked a corner onto goal, and Ever Banega somehow failed to clear it, instead taking the ball over the goal-line himself. Bolivia looked certain to double their lead when woefully open defending allowed them through for a one-on-one but Marcelo Martins was unable to take it round Romero who got a hand to it. Argentina then levelled with a quarter of an hour to go after a magnificently struck volley from Sergio Aguero, but were unable to win the game when Aguero looked to find his brace from a tight and difficult angle, when a few yards away Messi was free infront of goal.

Colombia followed on a cold night with a hot atmosphere in Santa Fe. An increasingly frustrated crowd voiced their displeasure as Argentina toiled, with the best chances of the game coming for Colombia, including a missed open net in the 26th minute. The hosts seemed unnerved by the crowd and their defence gave the ball away in bad areas repeatedly. In the final minutes, it was Colombia pushing for the winner and Argentina hanging onto the 0-0. This match was the lowest moment in the relationship between Messi and the Argentine fans, as he was jeered by his own supporters. They aired their frustration at him for his failure to link well with Carlos Tevez, who the Argentine people preferred for his passionate style of play. Very unpleasant remarks would appear in Argentine society, not only did they say Messi could only play well if he had Xavi and Iniesta with him, they now said he didn’t care about Argentina the same way he cared about Barcelona, and due to leaving age 13, he wasn’t a true Argentinian.

With Tevez left out for the following game, Messi rose to the occasion in the must-win final group match against Costa Rica. In what appeared likely to prove another frustrating game with a whole host of chances missed, Argentina finally took the lead in first half stoppage time after a keeping error presented an easy chance to Aguero. Messi provided 2 assists in the 3-0 win, one for Aguero and one for Angel Di Maria, but he probably should have had 6. He provided Higuain with 3 big chances, two in the first half, one a perfectly placed cross where Higuain completely missed the ball, the next when Messi dribbled from deep and slipped it into an unmarked Gonzalo Higuain who skied it. The same thing happened again in the 2nd half when Leo attracted and occupied all 3 defenders with a dribbling run before passing it to an unmarked Higuain, who once more fired it over the crossbar. The final of the 6 chances Messi put on a plate for his teammates was missed by Lavezzi who hit the post, but Argentina were through and would face Uruguay in the Quarters.

The Quarter-Final saw a return to Santa Fe, where the Argentines fell behind inside 5 minutes after bad positioning from Romero on a free-kick saw him stretching for a header and able to push it out only as far as Diego Perez who was unmarked for a tap-in. A brilliant Messi ball for Higuain saw them level it up 12 minutes later, as the Argentina number 9 this time took the chance created for him. Messi then found the head of Higuain again from a free-kick who in turn found the net once again, but the flag was rightfully up for offside.

Diego Perez would go from hero to villain for Uruguay after he was given his marching orders for a second bookable offence, being judged to have deliberately prevented an Argentine counter attack. However Argentina were unable to make their man advantage count and it was instead Uruguay who came closest to going infront when Diego Forlan headed onto the crossbar. With the game 1-1 on the scoreboard, it became 1-1 for sendings off in the 87th minute when Luis Suarez invited a challenge from Mascherano in typically crafty fashion, and Mascherano clumsily took the bait.

Neither side was able to win the game in Extra-Time so it was decided by a shootout with Messi going first and sending the keeper the wrong way. The following three penalties were just as emphatic, until Tevez stepped up for Argentina’s third spotkick. Muslera in the Uruguay guessed right and saved. It was ironic that it was the player whom the fans loved most, whose miss was responsible for their exit, as a perfect penalty into the top corner by Martin Caceres sent Uruguay into the semi-finals 5-4 on penalties.

Most disappointing about this Quarter-Final defeat for Argentina, as well as it being a competition on their soil, was that Brazil had also fell at the Quarters stage, losing to Paraguay on penalties. The three other semi-finalists were Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela so this was plainly a golden opportunity missed as had they won that shootout they almost certainly would have beaten Peru and Paraguay, but instead it was Uruguay who got to lift the trophy in Buenos Aires. For Messi it was to be a second consecutive major tournament without a goal, with the Colombia game in particular proving a clear indication of how far he had to go to enjoy the same reverence from his countrymen that he received from the Barca supporters. 

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It was not until the 11/12 season when Messi began to find the net with the same kind of regularity that he did for Barcelona. This led to Messi’s season including a staggering 82 goals aswell as 33 assists in 69 appearances. His first Argentine hattrick came in a 3-1 win over Switzerland and after having to wait until his 70th cap for his first, his second hattrick came just two games in a 4-3 friendly match win over Brazil. Messi’s hattrick sealing goal won the game for Argentina in the 85th minute and it’s one of the finest goals of his international career. Receiving the ball tight to the touchline just inside the Brazilian half, Messi beats his man then dribbles straight towards the heart of the opposition defence, nobody engages with him and Messi is free to let fly a shot which finds the top corner. The shot had the keeper beaten before he could even react to it, and he can only turn to watch it find his top corner. It was Messi’s first real superstar performance for Argentina, his first match that belonged alongside some of his best displays for Barcelona. It came during a run of 10 goals in 6 Argentina matches, 9 of them coming during Messi’s 91-goal haul for the year of 2012.

After scoring just 9 goals in 33 caps between 2009 and 2011, under new manager Alejandro Sabella, Messi was now producing by far his most prolific form in the shirt of the Albiceleste. 10 goals in 14 qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup was in stark contrast to the 4 in 18 he’d managed in the 2010 qualifiers.  With Messi in this kind of form, Argentina were confident they could win their first World Cup for 28 years and on the soil of their hated rivals Brazil. The group they were drawn in could only have strengthened this belief as they were matched with Nigeria, Iran and Bosnia & Herzegovina.

World Cup debutants Bosnia would be first up in the Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro. It took just under 3 minutes for Messi to make his first contribution, with his wickedly whipped in ball deflecting in off Sead Kolasinac. The rest of the first half was a frustrating one for Messi and co, though personnel changes at the break led to some improvement in the second half. Overall though it was proving a very underwhelming opening game for Leo and his teammates, that was atleast until the 65th minute when Messi dribbled from just inside his own half, exchanged a one-two with Higuain then beat a defender to make room for the shot, this time doing what he’d been unable to do in 5 matches in South Africa and finding the back of the net, for his first tournament goal in 7 years. A late goal from Bosnia could not spoil the party, Argentina and Messi had arrived at the World Cup.

Or so they thought. Iran provided the stubborn opposition in Argentina’s second game, as the South Americans struggled to break them down. Messi’s first chance of the game arrives just short of the hour mark but this time he is unable to find the bottom corner as he shoots just wide of the post. Into added time and the game looks to be heading for stalemate, but there is one man who has not given up and that man is Messi. He comes up with a beautiful curling effort from 25 yards out and the keeper can’t get anywhere near it.

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Argentina made it 9 points from 9 with Messi hitting his first and to date only World Cup brace against Nigeria in a 3-2 win. Messi’s stunning free kick was his 24th goal in his last 23 internationals, but he was having to do virtually everything in attack, Argentina’s winning goal against Nigeria was their 6th of the tournament and the first Messi hadn’t scored or created, the others were going to have to step up because Leo would no longer be able to do it alone against better opposition. However with 4 goals already there was plenty to be optimistic about as Messi had already scored more in 3 games at this World Cup than he’d managed in the 4 major tournaments he’d previously appeared in. 

The last 16 game saw Argentina take on Switzerland in Sao Paulo and it was the Swiss who had the better of the 1st half chances, Messi was able to conjure up a few moments of magic in a game where he was very tightly marked by not just one but often two Swiss midfielders, confident that if they could stop Messi they could stop Argentina. And for 117 minutes they did, the game beginning to drift towards penalties, when Messi who had in extra-time began to look out of energy and ideas, suddenly burst back into life dribbling towards the Switzerland goal before switching the play to Angel Di Maria who was unmarked to his right, Di Maria didn’t bother taking a touch and instead side-footed it into the bottom corner. Despite the late nature of Argentina’s would-be winner, Switzerland almost found themselves level when substitute Dzemaili headed onto the post from inside the six-yard box, with the ball then bouncing back off his shin and behind for a goalkick.

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Argentina would also win their next match 1-0 against a side in all red, but they were much more convincing in this Quarter-Final against Belgium, producing what was their best performance of the tournament in their only knockout stage game to be decided in 90 minutes. The game’s only goal came after 8 minutes with Messi finding Di Maria who in turn found Higuain after a deflection, which allowed the ball to set up nicely for a first time shot which the striker directed powerfully into the net. Sabella’s side were by no means awe-inspiring, but they were atleast now solid, having found a line-up and structure to the side which now provided Messi with a good support base behind him, with the midfield expertly marshalled by Mascherano. Messi had a big chance in the final minutes to get his 5th goal of the tournament when a quick Argentine breakaway saw him go clean through but he was unable to beat Courtois. Still this was Messi’s easiest day at the office so far in Brazil, as for the first and only time really in the tournament, other attackers such as Higuain stepped up and did their bit.

After Germany had massacred hosts Brazil 7-1 in the first semi-final, the second semi between Argentina and Netherlands was an extremely cautious affair, with chances at a premium. The best opening of the 90 came for Arjen Robben who appeared to have gotten clear of the Argentine defence for a rare sight at goal, but Mascherano got back magnificently for a perfectly executed slide tackle. Argentina had the better of Extra-Time with their first chance being squandered by Rodrigo Palacio. Leo who had exerted a lot of energy in getting Argentina to this stage appeared fatigued, as if now it had all caught up with him and he didn’t have much left. But as he did against Switzerland he found the energy for one last run beating Dirk Kuyt and Ron Vlaar twice to get down the right and float in a ball for Maxi Rodriguez who was unable to make solid contact.

So it would be a shootout to decide Germany’s Rio opponents, and Netherlands to go first. Centre half Ron Vlaar stepped up and had his poor penalty saved by Romero. Lionel Messi had the chance to give his team the advantage in the shootout, and that’s what he did. Arjen Robben then got Netherlands off the mark in the shootout, before Argentina sent up a central defender of their own. Ezequiel Garay had better luck than Vlaar though as he smashed his home. Wesley Sneijder who was Netherland’s 3rd taker in their Quarter-Final shootout against Costa Rica was third again now, and he again went to the same side, this time with a different outcome as Romero guessed correctly and saved to put Argentina on the cusp of the final. Aguero and Kuyt both scored meaning that if Maxi Rodriguez made it 4 successful spotkicks out of 4, Argentina were through to their first World Cup final since 1990. Jasper Cillessen got gloves to Maxi’s pen but the power was too much to keep out and for the third time in World Cup history the final would see Argentina play Germany.

The match would also be Messi and Argentina’s third successive World Cup meeting with Germany and for the third time Germany would inflict heartache on Messi and his nation. Argentina would get the better of the early goings, with Messi getting beyond Mats Humels and reaching the byline, but Leo made a rare poor choice here, instead of trying to pick out Higuain with a ball across the 6-yard box, he appeared unaware of this option and went for the trickier option of trying to find Enzo Perez and Schweinsteiger was in position to clear. For a player of Messi’s decision making, it was a big missed opportunity.

Worse was to follow in the 20th minute when Toni Kroos made a woeful misjudgement, getting too much on a header back towards his own goal and putting Higuain clear of his own defence, baring down on goal. Inexplicably, Higuain opted to not to take a touch when he had ample time to do so and instead tried to beat the best goalkeeper in the world with a half-volley from the edge of the box. He got this difficult skill horribly wrong and the shot was an awful one, going nowhere near the net. For a long time people will wonder what on earth Higuain was thinking, in this moment that would truly typify his Argentina career.

Around 10 minutes later it looked momentarily as though Higuain had made amends, and he himself certainly believed so but the flag was raised for offside. Germany came more into the game as the half progressed and it was they who came closest to scoring first when Benedikt Howedes powerfully met a corner with a diving leap, but somehow found only the post with the goal gaping. 

Leo’s big moment came just over 90 seconds into the second half, when he is put through for his only shot of the game from inside the penalty box. Messi knowing he is up against the world’s best goalkeeper in the form of his life tries to make the finish absolutely perfect to give Manuel Neuer no chance with it, and the shot is too far away from the keeper for him to stop it, but it isn’t perfect and it goes past the far corner, rather than finding it.

The final was quite a good one, an even game with both teams looking dangerous but also defending well. Germany worked situations well but were in the final moment just lacking the right touch and the match moved into Extra-Time. Argentina had another big chance in the 95th minute when a great ball from Marcos Rojo picked out substitute Palacio, but his chest control was a little too heavy and with Neuer advancing on him he seemed to panic and attempt a difficult lob when there were surely other easier possibilities, such as just putting his foot through it.

It was the Germans who were clinical in a way Argentina weren’t able to be when they scored the first and only goal of the final in the 113th minute, with the two substitutes Andre Schurrle and Mario Gomez combining, the latter scoring with a brilliant chest control and half volley finish.

Messi’s last kick of the final is a bad one, he has a free kick 30 yards out for Argentina’s final chance to force penalties but it’s a horrible one going way over the bar. And as Messi walked up the steps to claim his runners-up medal, it was of no consolation to him to also pick up the award for the tournament’s best player, for he had to walk past the FIFA World Cup, rather than lift it.

Leo had been unable to score a knockout stage goal and after the prolific start he made at the tournament that had to come as a disappointment. He appeared fatigued in the last matches and when his goals dried up, so did Argentina’s. Albiceleste only managing 2 goals in 420 minutes of knockout football. They relied on a solid defensive structure to get them so far and it was almost enough, but with Di Maria injured for the last 2 matches, if Messi couldn’t conjure magic from thin air, nobody else in an Argentina shirt was going to score. It was a team that relied extremely heavily on him, if it wasn’t quite a one-man team, it was certainly a one-man attack. 

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Messi responded brilliantly to the disappointment at the Maracana, delivering one of his best ever seasons with 58 goals in 57 games as Barca won their second treble. Leo also gained some form of retribution over Germans Jerome Boateng and Neuer, when he humiliated the former before dinking it over the keeper in a 3-0 Champions League semi-final win. The summer of 2015 also offered the opportunity for international redemption in the shape of the Copa America which took place in Chile.

In their opening match all appeared to be going swimmingly with Argentina 2-0 up and coasting thanks to goals from Aguero and a penalty from Messi, but strange positioning from Sergio Romero with him being unnecessarily stood outside of his six-yard box invited a shot from Nelson Valdez and with it he pulled Paraguay back into the contest. Argentina saw their 3 points turn into 1 in the 89th minute when a free-kick was headed down for Lucas Barrios to lash in.

That was far from ideal with defending champions Uruguay next. But Argentina were able to pick up all 3 points on this occasion with a well worked move involving Messi, Javier Pastore and Zabaleta ending with Aguero heading the latter’s cross into the top corner. 1-0 was also sufficient in the final group game against tournament invitees Jamaica, for what was Messi’s 100th Argentina cap. Higuain this time getting the goal to ensure top spot and a tough Quarter-Final against Colombia, who had already beaten Brazil.

Argentina produced nearly all the chances, with Colombia keeper David Ospina pulling off an excellent double save to deny first the boot of Aguero with his foot, then the head of Messi with his hands. In the second half he pushed another effort onto the post and aswell a Colombia defender had to slide in to clear the ball out of the goalmouth, with Argentina players lurking close by awaiting a tap-in. Argentina for all their efforts were unable to break the Colombians down though and the contest progressed through to penalties.

Messi levelled the shootout at 1-1 after James had given Colombia the lead, and the next four spotkicks were also successful until Luis Muriel stepped up and skied Colombia’s fourth penalty. Lucas Biglia had the chance to put Argentina through with Argentina’s fifth kick but he shot wide of the goal meaning sudden death. Marcos Rojo was next to miss a penalty that would have put his team in the semi-finals, but finally after Colombia had missed their 3rd penalty and Jeison Murillo had become the 5th of the last 7 takers to miss, Carlos Tevez finally sealed Argentina’s win and one can only wonder why he hadn’t stepped up sooner.

For the second consecutive Copa America, Brazil had lost on penalties in the Quarter-Finals against Paraguay, meaning Argentina would face them for the second time at the tournament. Given their first meeting had finished in a draw, and Paraguay had matched Brazil for 2 hours before beating them on penalties, it promised to be a difficult match.

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Rojo gave Argentina the lead after 14 minutes as he pounced first on Messi’s free kick. That lead was doubled when Messi assisted Pastore, but when Paraguay scored a few minutes before half time with an incredibly soft goal from Argentina’s point of view, history was in danger of repeating itself. However, this time the match took a different route and a much more scenic one for Argentina with Di Maria restoring the two-goal advantage shortly after the break. Then with many Paraguay players caught up field, a dribbling run by Messi where he beat 3 opponents gave Argentina a 5 against 1 situation, Leo played in Pastore whose heavy touch before the shot almost undid Messi’s great work, but the rebound was knocked in by Di Maria for his second goal in six minutes.

After Aguero had made it 5-1, his replacement off the bench Higuain added his name to the scoresheet for six of the best from Argentina. 6 goals and 5 different goalscorers, Messi wasn’t one of them but he provided 3 assists for the first and only time in an Argentina shirt, on what was an almost perfect night for them and a great provider of confidence ahead of the final against hosts Chile, who would be appearing in their first Copa America final since 1987.

A sea of ‘La Roja’ red greeted the teams from all four sides of the Estadio Nacional in Santiago. A cagey first half of few chances was followed by a second half which was somehow even less eventful, totally without incident until the 82nd minute when Alexis Sanchez attempted and was close to succeeding with a well-hit volley meant for the bottom corner, but instead whizzing by half a foot the wrong side of the post.

With 20 seconds left of the 2 minutes additional time, Messi broke clear for a 3 against 3 counter attack, he picked out Ever Banega to put him in on goal, the situation seemed to be crying out for a first-time shot but Banega instead let the ball run across his body and attempted to pick out the run into the six-yard box of Higuain, but the pass was not as good as it needed to be, forcing Higuain too wide and narrowing his angle as he found only the side netting. This was to be by far Argentina’s best chance of the game, with the only chance of Extra-Time going to Chile after a mistake from Mascherano let Alexis run in, but he couldn’t keep his shot under the bar.

So it would be the lottery of penalties to decide if Argentina could win their first Copa America since 1993 or if Chile would win their first, ever. Lionel Messi took Argentina’s first kick and though keeper Claudio Bravo dived the right way, he couldn’t get near it. This penalty to make it 1-1 would be the last Argentina would score in the shoot-out, with Higuain and Banega both missing. This meant Alexis Sanchez could win it for Chile with their 4th kick, and he did, securing the title in style with a panenka.

Angel Di Maria who had missed the 2014 World Cup Final through injury and who had starred in the Copa America semi-final with 2 goals again experienced bad luck with injury, having to leave the field inside half an hour, in what was a big blow for Argentina. Carlos Tevez who had scored 29 goals in the 14/15 season must have been frustrated having to watch everything unfold from the bench, with no part to play for him in the final. And you have to wonder had Tata Martino been brave enough to go with 2 strikers upfront when making his 3rd and final substitute, instead of going like for like and replacing Pastore with Banega, would the outcome have been different? Surely if in the 92nd minute, Messi had been able to slip Tevez clear on goal, instead of Banega, the striker would atleast have taken a shot. And given Tevez scored the winning penalty in Argentina’s Quarter-Final shootout win, it surely would have been good to have him on the field for this shootout too. If, But’s and Maybe’s. Just like the previous summer, small margins again defined Messi and Argentina’s failure to take home the prize.

After the final, Messi would play just 5 Argentina matches before getting another shot at winning La Copa. To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the first South American Championships, a special Copa America Centenario tournament was arranged for the summer of 2016. This was to be the first Copa America with as many as 16 teams, the usual 10 from South America being joined by 6 from North America, including USA who would be the first non-South American nation to host the tournament, perhaps rather unusual timing given the competition was staged to celebrate 100 years of the South American federation.

This meant Champions Chile would become the first team to defend their title in back-to-back years since the start of the Copa America era, in place of what was then known simply as the South American Championship. That defence would face a tricky start in Group D against last year’s beaten finalists Argentina.

Argentina started a tournament game without Lionel Messi for the first time since 2007 as he was carrying a knock and not yet 100% right, with Argentina hoping to build his fitness for the later rounds. He was a relatively comfortable spectator in Santa Clara, California once Di Maria had put Argentina in the lead after 51 minutes after a through-pass from Banega, and then repaid the favour by putting Banega in 8 minutes later for 2-0. Chile spoiled Argentina’s cleansheet with a 93rd minute goal after Sergio Romero misjudged a free-kick and left his goal vacant, but that was the only thing the holders were able to spoil as Argentina claimed a small slice of revenge for the previous years final.

Messi’s first involvement came in game 2 against Panama, entering the field with just half an hour to play with Argentina a goal to the good thanks to a 7th minute header from Otamendi. Panama had been sent down to 10 after only half-an-hour but Argentina had been unable to kill the game off before the introduction of Messi.

Leo needed 7 minutes to end Panama’s hopes of getting an unlikely point when they failed to clear their lines properly and the ball fell in front of the man the Panamanians least wanted it to fall to, and he said thanks very much to score his first open-play Copa America goal since 2007. 10 minutes later after being fouled 25 yards out, Messi picked himself up and curled a stunning free-kick in for 3-0 to send the Soldier Field in Chicago into rapture.

After a further mistake whilst attempting to play-out from the back, Messi grabbed a 19-minute hattrick, his first at an international tournament, having been on the field for just 27 minutes. Having made them wait an hour for his introduction, Leo was still not done enthralling the 53,000 in attendance, producing one of the best pre-assists you could see, picking out the run of Marcos Rojo with an inch perfect, impossible to defend against through-ball, the defender then squaring it for Aguero to head home for five-nothing.

Messi returned to the bench again for the final group game against Bolivia, which Argentina won 3-0 with all the goals coming in the first 32 minutes courtesy of a deflected Erik Lamela freekick, Lavezzi and defender Victor Cuesta. Leo came on for the second half but with the game already wrapped up, his impact was more minimal this time out.

With the Quarter-Final line up complete without both Uruguay and more shockingly Brazil who had been stunned by Peru in their final group match, Argentina came up against Venezuela in their Quarter. Leo Messi would now not miss another minute for his side at the tournament. Having this time been used more sparingly in the group stage, he appeared to have plenty left in the tank for the knockout phase, which had not been the case in previous tournaments. Argentina took a commanding lead against the Venezuelans, going two-up with a brace from Higuain, the first in the 8th minute from a Messi pick-out and the second coming 20 minutes later after a terrible back-pass put him clear to round the keeper.

After Venezuela had blown a chance to get in at half-time with the deficit halved after a horrible panenka penalty went straight into Romero’s gloves, Messi got in on the act for Argentina’s third, coolly slotting through the legs of keeper Dani Hernandez to equal Gabriel Batistuta’s record of 54 goals to become Argentina’s joint leading goalscorer. Salomon Rondon then glanced one back for Venezuela with 20 minutes remaining, but Lamela then went straight up the other end to make it 4-1 as Messi’s second assist of the game made certain Argentina’s progression to the last 4.

Over 70,000 fans came to the NRG Stadium in Houston, many of course hoping USA could pull off a huge upset and reach their first ever Copa America final. It took less than 3 minutes for the likelihood of this outcome to shrink yet further, when Leo Messi’s scooped pass found the head of Lavezzi who looped it over Brad Guzan for 1-0. With half an hour gone, a foul on Messi around 25 yards out was able to temporarily bring him down but it wasn’t enough to stop him as he converted the resulting free-kick, with a brilliant, totally unsaveable strike befitting of the player, the occasion of a Copa America Semi-Final and aswell the achievement: that goal being the one to put Leo outright as Argentina’s all-time top scorer.

A brace from Higuain made it 4 Argentina goals in 2 games for him, his first coming 5 minutes into the second half, and his second assisted by Messi with a few minutes to go. Argentina and Messi were through to their 3rd Copa America final in 4 tournaments, and it was looking as though it would finally be their year. They came into the final with 18 goals in 5 games for only 2 conceded and with their key man Messi having the best tournament of his career in terms of end product with 5 goals and 4 assists, with all four of the assists coming in his last 2 matches. Higuain’s form aswell suggested he was coming good at just the right time.

The final would be a tough test though, a repeat of last year’s final opposition Chile, who after a slow start to the competition had livened up in the knockout stages, beating Mexico 7-0 before reaching the final by virtue of a 2-0 win over Colombia.

A big chance came the way of Argentina and Higuain in the 21st minute, a mistake in defence giving him the opportunity to run clean through on goal but rather than just rounding the keeper to tap into an empty net as he did against Venezuela, he instead attempted the rather more difficult skill of lifting the ball over the keeper once he could no longer stay big and to pick out the bottom corner. He was unable to do so, shooting wide. Higuain had come into the tournament after by far the best season of his career, scoring 36 goals in 35 Serie A games for Napoli, but it appeared this mattered not whenever presented with a big chance in a final for Argentina, as yet again he failed to do what was required.

A foul on Messi brought a second yellow card for Marcelo Diaz, but the referee held the yellow card up so long he appeared not to realise for a while that he had already booked Diaz and now needed to produce the red. Eventually he did and Chile were down to 10. Argentina’s man advantage lasted for all of 15 minutes, until a foolish tackle from Marcos Rojo through the back of Arturo Vidal gave the referee (who seemed to be enjoying getting his cards out at this point, given he’d shortly prior to the tackle booked 3 players including Messi, in a span of 3 minutes) the chance to send a second player off for an early bath.

The referee’s failure to control the game really ended the spectacle of a game that had made a promising start, as it became punctuated with fouls and couldn’t get going again. Substitute Aguero worked some space for a shot in the 84th minute but he couldn’t do any better with the finish than the man he’d replaced Gonzalo Higuain, as he skied his shot horribly.

For the second year in a row the Copa America final between Argentina and Chile ended 0-0 and went to Extra-Time, where Aguero forced a top save out of Claudio Bravo, whose diving fingertips were just able to prevent the striker’s header finding the net from Messi’s free-kick. That was the last opening for either side as the game between two sides who’d managed a combined 34 goals at the tournament going into the final, again remained scoreless after 120 minutes.

Arturo Vidal stepped up first for Chile and had his spotkick saved by Romero, giving Messi the chance to take an early advantage for Argentina. However, he instead cancelled out Vidal’s miss, getting his penalty all wrong and clearing the crossbar with it. The next 5 penalties were scored to give Chile a 3-2 lead as Lucas Biglia approached the spot for Argentina’s fourth kick. His penalty was not particularly well-placed and Bravo saved it, meaning the trophy was once again on the boot of a Chilean, this time Francisco Silva who made himself the hero by sealing Chile’s 2nd Copa America title in 2 years.

For Messi, there was the heartache of a third final defeat in 3 years. Three times his side had got as far as Extra-Time in the final, and conceded just 1 goal in 6 hours of said finals, but been unable to get a single one of their own in that time. And as Messi was forced yet again to watch the other team lift and parade around with the trophy, this loss hurt maybe even more than the others. To fall to the same team in exactly the same way 2 years in a row, off the back of losing a World Cup final was tough to swallow. Making it even harder for Leo was perhaps knowing that this time he’d been partly responsible for the defeat with the penalty miss.

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Due to the pain that brought Leo to tears on the field of the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, Messi announced his retirement from international football after the match at aged 29, but such was the swell of support for him to alter his decision and aswell further time taken by Leo to reflect, he reversed his decision saying: “A lot of things went through my mind on the night of the final and I gave serious thought to quitting, but my love for my country and this shirt is too great.”

Leo Messi missed 8 World Cup Qualifiers, from which Argentina picked up just 7 points. He was also on the field for a 3-0 drubbing in Brazil and as Argentina failed to win either at home to Venezuela nor in their penultimate qualifier at home to Peru, they had to win away in Ecuador to secure automatic qualification to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This looked unlikely when they fell behind after just 37 seconds. However Messi was able to rescue his side with a masterclass, hitting a hat-trick to get 3rd place for his side.

There was enough to suggest though for his own mental well-being that Lionel may have been better off just staying retired. A 4-2 loss against Nigeria and a 6-1 hammering against Spain, both without Leo, was an indicator of the level of their reliance on their star man. A 4-0 win against Haiti on the tournaments eve with a returning Messi hitting another hat-trick was a small morale booster ahead of facing World Cup debutants Iceland in the Group D opener in Moscow. 

A smart turn and finish from Kun Aguero put Argentina ahead, but the lead lasted only 4 minutes before Alfeo Finnbogason scored Iceland’s first ever World Cup goal. Argentina had the chance to regain the lead when Aguero was fouled trying to get on the end of a clipped ball from Messi. Leo struck the kick, but Halldorsson was equal to the relatively poor penalty.

Messi had one more chance to find the winner for his nation but his 81st minute effort from outside the box flew just wide of the target. With Iceland’s midfield camped in front of their defence on the edge of the penalty box, there was minimal space to be found for openings and Argentina had to live with just an underwhelming point.

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It may have been of some consolation to them to know that the last team to draw 1-1 with Iceland in their tournament opener was Portugal two years prior, who ofcourse went onto to win the competition. History looked unlikely to repeat itself however as early as the national anthems ahead of Argentina’s second match against Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod. Looking quite different to how he’d ever looked before pre-game, the usually calm and relaxed looking Messi was replaced by a Leo frantically rubbing his forehead, eyes closed deep in seemingly worried thought.

He looked like a man carrying if not the weight of the world on his shoulders, then the weight of a nation. And after his penalty miss lost his side 2 points, the pressure on him had ramped up to a level that he did not appear comfortable with. The first big chance however did go the way of the Argentines, the ball breaking to Enzo Perez with an empty goal around 13 yards away, but his side footed finish goes wide of the post.

Next it is Croatia’s turn to miss their own glaring chance to score, as Mario Mandzukic fails to beat Willy Caballero from point-blank range, heading wide. The Croatians needn’t have worried, as Caballero then presented them with a gift-wrapped chance 8 minutes into the second half, slicing a bizarre, stunningly bad kick straight back to Ante Rebic, rather than over his head, which was presumably his intention. Though so badly was it executed, it’s hard to be certain what he was doing. Rebic volleyed home the present for 1-0. From Willy with love.

Argentina come close to equalising when Higuain gets in behind, but instead of wrapping his foot round the ball to put it immediately across the six-yard box where Messi is positioned for a tap-in, he doesn’t look up and instead cuts it back to Maximiliano Meza who shoots straight at the keeper, the ball rebounds to Meza who flicks it to Messi but from an extremely tight angle with the keeper’s body close, there wasn’t much Messi could do with it even before Ivan Rakitic came in with the block.

They were made to rue such wastefulness when a great strike from Luka Modric with 10 minutes to go had the feeling of a game-deciding goal. Their misery was made worse in stoppage time, when Messi’s Barcelona teammate Rakitic heaped further misery on him with what was quite a farcical goal. Argentina defenders stopping dead with their hands raised, whilst allowing Rakitic a free tap-in summed up the disarray and ineptitude of the team, as Argentina suffered their worst World Cup defeat since 1958.

This was also the first time they had failed to win either of their first World Cup games since 1974, meaning going into their last group match against Nigeria, they had to win and hope Iceland didn’t better their score against Croatia in order to progress. Jorge Sampaoli had been Chile coach when they defeated Messi and Argentina in the 2015 Copa America, but now as head of Argentina he looked devoid of ideas on how to achieve anything similar to that level of success.

Nigeria had been a great opponent for Messi throughout his career. Against them he’d scored twice in the Under 20 World Cup final against them, assisted the winner in the Olympics final and achieved two victories in the last 2 instalments of the World Cup including that brace in their last meeting. That form looked to continue 14 minutes in to the decisive game in Saint Petersburg. Ever Banega from just inside the Nigeria half expertly spots an incoming Leo Messi run and provides a pass worthy of the idea, flighting an excellent ball over the top for him. There’s still so much for Messi to do, he begins by receiving the ball on his left thigh with a feather-light touch, then pushes the ball into the area with his left foot, the touch a perfect one to keep it away from the ensuing defender and aswell to position it for a right-footed shot. Leo’s weaker foot, but it didn’t seem like it as the shot looked like beating Francis Uzoho the instant it left his foot and it flew into the back of the net as Messi became the first player to score in the World Cup in his teens, twenties and thirties. The joy and relief was plain to see as Messi dropped to his knees and pointed with both hands up to the heavens.

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20 minutes later, Messi was inches from his second with an almost perfect free-kick, which a diving Uzoho would not have been able to keep out, but the post did his job for him and denied Messi a magnificent second. This moment appeared even more significant when 4 minutes into the second half, Mascherano who was holding Leon Balogun in the area as he looked to closely mark him from a corner kick, was rather harshly penalised for a foul and a spotkick was awarded. Victor Moses calmly slotted it away, and Argentina were in serious trouble now.

Their World Cup life flashed before their eyes in the 75th minute when a Nigeria counter-attack had Ahmed Musa and Odion Ighalo racing away towards their goal, Musa’s attempt to find him wasn’t the best but Rojo’s attempt to clear it was even worse, the ball coming off his shoulder as he went to head it and falling straight to Ighalo to volley. There was nothing goalkeeper Franco Armani who had been drafted in for the disgraced Caballero could do, he could only watch and pray the ball didn’t hit his net, and it didn’t, going wide.

Finishing level wouldn’t be enough though, as it stood Nigeria were going through and Argentina were going home. In the end they were saved by the unlikeliest of sources, a cross from Gabriel Mercado found an unmarked Marcos Rojo who found the volley of his life, producing a striker’s finish for just his third ever Argentina goal, his second in a World Cup against Nigeria.

Argentina were however only able to extend their World Cup stay for 4 more days, coming up against France in the first Round of 16 match. The trouble in-store became apparent after 11 minutes when Kylian Mbappe stretched his long, sprinters legs and raced from the inside of his own half into the penalty box. Rojo unable to deal with his speed brought him down and Griezmann made it 1-0 from the spot.

A wonderful strike from Di Maria out of nothing sent Argentina into half-time level and things got even better for them a few minutes into the second half, when Messi helped the ball towards goal with a shot that Gabriel Mercado was able to touch in. The lead lasted for just 9 minutes, as there was little they could do when Benjamin Pavard struck one of the goals of the tournament. Mbappe took France from behind to infront again in the 64th minute and then doubled their lead four minutes later.

With Argentina completely unable to deal with Mbappe, the game was in danger of turning very ugly for them, but instead it was they who scored the final goal of the game, Messi from deep finding the head of Aguero who nodded home astutely. Argentina finished on the wrong of the 7-goal thriller but had maybe re-established some pride, finishing the game chasing the equalising goal. When reflecting they could also take some consolation from the fact their only defeats suffered at the tournament came against the two sides who went on to play each other in the World Cup Final. 

With the 2019 Copa America, Messi was playing in his 5th international tournament in 6 years, meaning the footballing God’s either really wanted to see Messi lift a trophy with Argentina and wanted him to have as many opportunities as possible, or they were extremely unmerciful and enjoyed seeing the humbling of the world’s most superhuman football player.

It appeared to be the latter after an uninspiring Argentina performance resulted in a 2-0 defeat to Colombia, Messi missing the best chance for his side around the hour mark with the game still at 0-0, a header he surely felt he should have done better with.  It was a rare glimpse at goal for Leo, the game otherwise passing him by. 

It’s hard to recall a time Argentina had gone into a Copa America less fancied (it didn’t take long to see why). There was some fleeting hope among the more optimistic Messi/Argentina supporters that maybe these low expectations would work in the teams favour. After the huge pressure of going into the last two Copas expecting themselves to win, maybe the lack of expectation this time would allow them to play with less pressure and they could end up surprising a few people.

As it turned out, no one was surprised with Argentina in their opening game. The only slight surprise maybe, is that somehow they’d managed to get worse from the World Cup the previous year. The defence and midfield too poor with the ball to regularly involve the teams star attackers, then the forwards when they did receive the ball usually only had one player ahead or level with them with no sign of the Argentine full backs being anywhere near the opposition final 3rd.

Things scarcely improved in the next match against Paraguay, as a Lionel Messi penalty from a rather fortuitously awarded spotkick got Argentina back level after they had gone behind. A much less debatable penalty was then awarded Paraguay’s way just 4 minutes later after a woefully bad tackle from Otamendi. Keeper Armani guessed right and kept it out from Derlis Gonzalez and Argentina got away with a point.

Argentina needed a win against Qatar to be sure of a Quarter-Final place, and they achieved it in relatively straightforward fashion, helped on the way by a 4th minute opener from Lautaro Martinez. The victory was not made certain however until the 82nd minute when Sergio Aguero put it out of Qatar’s realistic reach. This set up a Quarter-Final meeting with Venezuela.

Another early Martinez goal, this time 10 minutes in at the Maracana Stadium got Argentina off to the ideal start. Also like the Qatar game, Argentina were made to work before they could put it to bed with a second goal, but it arrived in the 74th minute with Giovani Lo Celso profiting from an awful keeping error as he spilled a tame Aguero effort.

Having reached their 4th Copa America semi-final of the last 5 editions, they would now face hosts Brazil in what was the first Copa America meeting between the continents most revered footballing nations since 2007.

Gabriel Jesus gave the Brazilian’s the lead before Aguero almost equalised from a Messi free-kick but was denied by the bar. Argentina acquitted themselves reasonably well to the challenge and Messi saw them hit the goalframe for a second time as he shot against the post. It was Brazil though who got the game’s second and decisive goal as Robert Firmino finished off a slick counter-attack. Brazil went on to the event’s showpiece against Peru, whilst Argentina had to make-do with a third place play-off match against their most familiar of recent foes, Chile.

Quick-thinking from Messi saw him put Aguero clean through in the 12th minute with a free-kick and the striker rounded the keeper to score. When Paulo Dybala slotted in their second 10 minutes later, things were going unusually well for a Copa America meeting with Chile. Too well. And ofcourse something had to go wrong, with Messi being sent off for just the second time in his career after an altercation with Chile’s Gary Medel who was also dismissed. What Messi actually did other than have someone’s head butting towards his face was unclear, and the referee for some reason decided against re-watching the incident back on the VAR monitor, too pre-occupied with the ensuing disagreements on the field between both sets of players, but in the end after a few minutes of the usual bad tempers flaring up whenever these sides met, both Messi and Medel left the field.

Things threatened to get worse for Argentina when Chile were awarded a penalty and subsequently halved the deficit. Though Argentina remained the deserved winners, ending their competition with a win for the first time since 1993, though sadly for them only to ensure 3rd place. How they must have wished they could have found a victory in their last match against Chile in 2015 or 2016 instead. However after a dreadful start to the competition, Argentina had assured some pride, and produced reason for wary optimism under new manager Lionel Scaloni.

If you’d told someone however that the defeat Argentina had suffered in their semi-final loss to Brazil would begin a run of over 3 years without defeat, it would have been put down as more than cautious optimism, instead you’d likely have been checked into an insane asylum. But amazingly, that’s exactly what’s happened. 

The plan was for Argentina to co-host the 2021 Copa America tournament along with Colombia. But first CONMEBOL ruled Colombia as unfit due to the current political climate there and then with under 2 weeks to go, they then also ruled out Argentina, stating the level of Covid-19 too high for the tournament to take place there and instead Brazil became the sole hosts again, as they were just 2 years ago, though this time with every game barring the final to take place without spectators.

A changed format saw 2 groups of 5, with everyone reaching the Quarter-Finals barring the bottom-placed teams. Argentina’s tournament opener came against who else but Chile, who Argentina had drawn 1-1 with in a World Cup Qualifier just 10 days prior. On that day Messi had given Argentina the lead from the spot before Alexis Sanchez equalised.

In his last 3 Copa America matches against Chile, Messi had lost 2 shootouts, missed in one and been sent off. His fourth meeting with them in successive Copa America’s went better this time as he scored a spectacular free-kick from over 25 yards out to put Argentina ahead after 33 minutes. However, just as in the World Cup Qualifier, the Albiceleste could not maintain their lead. Tagliafico swung a wild leg which brought down Arturo Vidal. Vidal then had his penalty saved by Emi Martinez, but Eduardo Vargas followed in and headed in after the ball had rebounded off the crossbar.

Messi later crafted a perfect ball onto the head of forward Nicolas Gonzalez, who ran in clear of any defenders, but despite the acres of space he found himself in, he couldn’t direct the header and passed up this golden chance to re-establish Argentina’s lead. The game again ended one-apiece.

Second up was a clash against another South American heavyweight, Uruguay. Argentina came out flying and took a 13th minute lead with a perfect floated Messi cross leaving the keeper in no-mans land, unable to get anywhere near the ball as midfielder Guido Rodriguez headed in off the post. An increasingly confident Argentina were able to complete nullify Suarez and Cavani as their opponents did not muster a single shot on goal. One goal always looked likely to be enough and it was.

Game number 3 against Paraguay followed a similar pattern. Again Argentina came out with the intention of getting an early goal and they got it in the 10th minute when Angel Di Maria expertly spotted then picked out Alejandro Gomez who lifted the ball into the back of the goal. As against Uruguay, Argentina provided more entertainment at 0-0 than they did at 1-0, despite leading for 80 minutes. They allowed Paraguay to have the ball in areas they couldn’t hurt them and saw the game out in a straightforward manner.

With Quarter-Final progression secure going into their final game, they took on Bolivia who were already certain to finish bottom. Unsurprisingly, Argentina yet again took an early lead, this time taking just 6 minutes. Messi appears to see gaps twice as wide as they actually are and have twice as much time to see them as everybody else, so good is his spacial awareness. Upon receiving the ball on the edge of the box, he takes a touch and swivels on the ball. As two defenders close the distance on him, with his second touch he flicks the ball to land perfectly into the path of Alejandro Gomes, who catches the ball sweetly on the volley and sends it into the top corner.

Argentina are this time more willing to let the shackles off and as the half hour mark passes an obvious foul on Gomez sees Argentina get their first penalty of the tournament and with it the opportunity to score twice for the first time at this Copa. Messi cooly dispatches on his record-breaking 148th cap for Argentina, overtaking the record of Javier Mascherano.

Messi adds his second of the night just before half time when his run is found by Aguero. The strikers lifted pass bounces up nicely for Messi for him to take a one-touch finish which he does, lobbing the ball with a side foot over the keepers head and into the empty net for 3-0. Argentina then allow one back on the hour mark, before re-establishing the three-goal cushion with substitute Lautaro Martinez scoring immediately from the bench.

3 wins and a draw secured top spot for Argentina and meant a Quarter-Final clash with Group B’s 4th place side Ecuador. Argentina were unable to find the early goal this time but it came in the 40th minute. Ecuador keeper Galindez had rushed out to meet the ball before the Argentina forward who had been put in by Messi, and was able to deny him. But only to put the ball back in Messi’s path. With 2 defenders back and the keeper outside of his penalty area, Leo could have been tempted to go for goal, but he never was, instead choosing the better option to pick out a free Rodrigo De Paul, who composed himself with a touch and then side-footed in.

Messi got his second assist of the night when a bad first touch for an Ecuadorian defender was pounced upon, and Messi again calmy opted to slip in a teammate, this time Lautaro Martinez the one to profit. Neither Argentina or Messi were done yet, as Angel Di Maria was crudely brought down just outside the box as he advanced on the Ecuador goal. Hincapie was shown a red card but probably thought denying Di Maria a shot at goal and aswell committing the foul before it was a penalty atleast lessened his teams chances of conceding a third. How wrong he was. Messi found the spot he wanted for the ball and then picked out his spot in the Ecuador net. This free kick goal was his second of the tournament, meanwhile noone else at that time at either the Copa America or the Euros had even scored one. The goal was his 76th for Argentina, putting him one behind the all-time South American record of 77, held by Pele.

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Argentina met Colombia in the semi-finals and early on Messi almost conjured one of the best assists of his career which is saying something, jinxing and weaving past 3 defenders in as many seconds before crossing for the head of Lautaro Martinez, who looked to find the bottom corner and had he found it, it would have been a certain goal with Ospina on the other side protecting his near post. As it was, the header skimmed just wide of the post.

A moment later and it was the Messi and Martinez partnership again, Messi being found in the box by Lo Celso, he uses his first touch to spin around hoping this will allow his second touch to be a shot, but a defender gets a foot in. Messi retains possession and lays it off to Lautaro who doesn’t need to take a touch and instead just strikes it first time past Ospina to give Argentina a 7th minute lead. For the fourth time at the tournament, Argentina had opened the scoring inside the first 13 minutes as Messi notched his 5th assist of the competition, the most he’d ever got at an international tournament.

But Argentina knew or should have known, this one was far from over as they lost a lead against Colombia less than a week prior to the Copa America kicking off. They had led 2-0 away in Colombia after just 8 minutes but the Colombians had found a 94th minute equaliser. And Argentina’s tactic which had for the most part worked successfully in the tournament up to now, of not committing many players to attacks, keeping the shape and looking to slow the game down with controlled possession, never looked likely to be enough here. Colombia forced a save out of Emi Martinez, hit the post and then the crossbar all before the first half was out.

Colombia’s deserved equaliser came in the 61st minute when Luis Diaz used just 2 touches to get clear of his defender and finish into the far corner past an advancing Martinez. This was just the second time Martinez had conceded at the tournament, and the first time since the opening game that Argentina had hit a bit of trouble.

This was a highly competitive semi-final with 27 shots, the edge going slightly to Colombia with 14 of them and 4 shots on target for both. Physicality was also very prevalent in the contest with 47 fouls and 10 yellow cards, six going to the side in yellow. Messi unsurprisingly was the most common victim of Colombia’s much more physical second half approach, a particularly high and heavy challenge left him writhing in pain and a big blotch of blood remained visible on the white sock covering his ankle for the remainder of the game.  

The introduction of Di Maria with 20 minutes left helped Argentina get back on the front foot in a game that was beginning to be snatched from their grip, but he was guilty of passing up a huge opportunity. It began with Ospina charging over 30 yards out of goal to meet him and trying to block the ball with his hands as Di Maria took it around him. With an open net right infront of him Di Maria instead bizarrely opted against simply side-footing it in and instead looked to set up Lautaro Martinez. The pass gave a defender time to get back on the line who Martinez then hit with the ball, which bounced back for Di Maria to hit. His shot coming 4 seconds after it should have done was an awful slice flying harmlessly away from the goal.

Di Maria in fairness quickly moved on from this disaster, brilliantly and skilfully escaping a marker before slipping it past another to find Messi in the box. From an extremely tight angle, Messi’s shot was so powerful it still would have likely beaten Ospina if not for instead cannoning off the post.

With no extra-time used before the final in Copa America, Brazil’s final opponents would be decided by penalties. Colombia had been victorious in a shootout just 3 days earlier advancing past Uruguay that way.

Colombia went first, historically an advantage in high-pressure shootouts at the end of major tournaments, and Cuadrado got them off to the ideal start beating Martinez despite the keeper guessing the right way. Messi immediately responds for his team with his penalty the perfect mix of power and precision going straight into the top corner. The next penalty is when the shootouts narrative really begins to form, with Argentina’s keeper Emi Martinez clearly and audibly talking to Colombia’s Davinson Sanchez as he prepares to take. Martinez told him “I’m sorry but I eat you brother” before saving his kick. De Paul missed the chance to give Argentina the edge in the shootout, clearing the crossbar as Sanchez’s miss was cancelled out.  

Mina had successfully converted in the Quarter-Final shootout and after broke into a dance. Martinez was determined the same fate would not befall him. The two make eye contact and exchange words with Martinez telling him “I can tell you’re nervous. I know which way you’re going to shoot. Watch and see I’m going to eat you up.” Mina smiled and attempted to look calm but his spotkick betrayed him, it was weak and saved by Martinez.   From the halfway line watching on Messi shouted “Dance now! dance now!” at a former teammate, highlighting what was at stake and the height of emotions as a third straight penalty was missed.

Parades then sent Ospina the wrong way to give Argentina the edge. As Borja Hernandez prepared to take Colombia’s fourth, Martinez was now warned by officials to stop the trash-talking as Borja too complained. The referee’s warnings didn’t make a difference as Martinez told Borja to “look at me, look at me in the face” Borja hits the penalty well however, hard and straight down the middle, and he then breaks into a dance infront of Martinez. Now is the turn of Argentina’s other Martinez to make his mark in the shootout and he does, his rooftop penalty giving Ospina no chance as he keeps Argentina in front.

Eric Cardona has to score Colombia’s 5th and final penalty to force Argentina’s 5th, but his penalty is poor and Martinez who this time opts to wait quietly on the line saves his 3rd penalty to book Argentina’s spot in the final. Martinez’s shootout performance was something special to witness, with him appearing so certain of victory and so confident he would play his part to achieve it, and he did that and more.

Messi played his fifth final at his tenth major tournament, meaning that he had reached the final at 50% of the major tournaments he’d played, but he was still waiting to win that elusive first trophy. The opponents were Brazil, who were Messi’s first final opposition back in 2007 and the stage was the Maracana stadium, scene of the worst night of Messi’s football career 7 years earlier when he’d lost the World Cup final. Could the same stage now provide perhaps the best and most satisfying night of Messi’s career? the signs were promising.

Messi himself had had an outstanding tournament, being named player of the tournament before the final had even kicked off. With 4 goals and 5 assists, he had scored or directly made 9 of Argentina’s 11 goals, and scored or assisted in every game bar 1. Aside from Messi, there was the formidable and assured presence of Emi Martinez who’d conceded just once and Lautaro Martinez had netted in 3 straight games, taking the reliance off Messi to score. Scaloni had done what all previous Argentina managers had for the most part failed to do, get a supporting cast around Messi who actually functioned as he needed them to.

Lo Celso and De Paul could feed Messi and avoid what had become an all too common sight in the previous years of Messi having to constantly come back to the halfway line to pick up the ball and then having a full team almost infront of him to try and bypass. The others were also for the first time trusting themselves and their own abilities, rather than constantly looking for Messi no matter where he was on the field and regardless of whether or not other players were better placed to receive the ball. Now the extreme over-reliance on Messi was over, Leo could better choose the right moments when to get involved and not get involved, meaning that when he did, he had plenty of speed and sharpness to offer, as he hadn’t had to spend time receiving the ball in bad areas and getting frustrated and tired from trying to do everything alone.

No game has better shown Argentina’s transformation than the Copa America final. The game promised to be extremely tight and well-matched with the two teams conceding 2 goals apiece in a combined 12 matches going into the final. With both defences so tight, the first goal felt like a massive one. And it went Argentina’s way. A long, accurate pass from De Paul in acres of space in midfield found the run of Di Maria, who was able to flick the ball on for himself with the first touch before lifting it beautifully over the head of Ederson and into the Brazil net, for Argentina’s first final goal since 2004, after failing to find the net in 4 finals since then.

Since the 2018 World Cup, Di Maria had been left out of a lot of Argentina squads and this was just his second start of the tournament. This seemed aswell to prove to be excellent management, as the 33-year old had plenty left in the tank for the final and turned in a truly excellent display in a game marred by a bad pitch and constant fouling. Having missed out on the World Cup final and being subbed out of the previous 2 Copa America finals, it was a wonderful redemption for Di Maria.

Brazil had a few moments in the second half, but could only force 2 saves from Martinez, who was easily equal to them. Even without viewing the multiple fouls Messi endured against Colombia, it was obvious to anyone watching the final Messi was less than 100% fit. Having played every minute of the 6 games to get there, the 34-year old had already exerted so much effort in getting his team that far and with the combination of fatigue and carrying a hamstring injury, his impact on the game was small.

Even more surprising than this, was how little a problem this was for Argentina, with Di Maria and De Paul stepping up fantastically. Argentina’s 28-year wait for a major honour ended and it could not really have come in sweeter fashion for Messi. They had done it meeting all 4 of the other South American heavyweights: Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil. Messi had joint top-scored at a tournament for the first time ever, aswell as being the top assistor and winning the award for tournament best player. And to win the trophy (their 15th Copa America tying Uruguay again for most) against a Brazil side that hadn’t lost a competitive match since 2018, it was also the first time Brazil had ever not won a Copa America held on their soil, this being the sixth.

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It being at the Maracana aswell felt almost like this was a dream for Messi and his supporters, and the only thing stopping it from seeming like an actual script written for Messi by his admirers, was his failure to take a chance late on when Di Maria brilliantly found him, which would have made the victory certain sooner, and aswell tied him with Pele on most goals for a South American team. What a stage it would have been to do that. But Messi was able to do something both Pele and Maradona were never able to and that’s win South America’s top prize.

Maradona won the 1986 World Cup the year before his future successor’s birth, and Messi won this Copa America the year after Diego’s death. As the final whistle blew Messi knelt in tears as his teammates ran from all over the pitch to celebrate with him. Full of players now from the generation after him, these teammates have been looking up to Messi for years and you could see what it meant to them, to win it not just for themselves but for the man who had given everything of himself in search of international silverware for Argentina.

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Messi celebrated what will likely always remain one of the best and happiest nights of his life, he was thrown into the air by his teammates and after lifting the trophy was reluctant to ever let it out of his hands for long. The stage of his most painful moment in football was now the setting for his greatest triumph, as his Maracana demons were exercised.  

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Qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar went much more smoothly than had come to be the norm for Messi and Argentina. A hattrick against Bolivia and a goal in a 3-0 win over Uruguay took Messi to 80 Argentina goals. His international journey seemed to have gone full circle. For years he achieved unmatched club success but struggled to replicate it in an Argentina jersey. Now he was receiving flak for his club football, in his first season with PSG, whilst producing his best for the national side. After a season in which he managed just 11 PSG goals and 6 in Ligue 1, questions were being asked about whether Messi’s best days were behind him as he approached his 35th Birthday. 

Messi made a mockery of such questions with his performance in the Finalissima, a one-off match played between the Champions of Europe and South America. He assisted twice in an emphatic 3-0 win. Leo followed this up four days later scoring all five of his teams goals against Estonia. 2 braces followed to put Messi’s tally going into what will be his 5th World Cup at 90 goals, alongside 49 assists in his 164 caps to date. Leo is now regarded with the same God-like reverence from Argentines which was once reserved only for Diego. But those who followed the journey will know, reaching this stage was never a straightforward and secure path. For a long time, it didn’t look likely.

His Argentina career can be broken down into 4 main stages. The first stage was 2005 to 2011 where Messi went from prestigious young talent to the biggest name, and in the eyes of many supporters he didn’t deliver. He scored 19 times in 67 games and in that time went back to back major tournaments without a goal. 

The second phase came between 2012 and 2016, where Messi’s brilliance finally starting coming to the forefront with the national side, as he inspired them to three successive finals scoring 38 goals in 49 caps. However, for whatever reason he could never quite bring the best from the talented forwards around him. Surprisingly given their close friendship Messi and Aguero never established a good partnership on the pitch, nor could he click with Carlos Tevez. Instead he mostly lined up behind Gonzalo Higuain who lacked both the ruthless finishing of an Aguero and the all-round team contribution a Tevez brings. This left Argentina short when approaching the last hurdle as defenders knew that if they stopped Messi, they stopped Argentina. With a lack of quality options in midfield, Messi aswell often found himself too deep to regularly hurt the opposition in tight games and he could be successfully smothered in midfield. 

The third phase came between 2017 and Copa America 2019, a phase in which Argentina struggled for an identity, other than looking to pass to Messi wherever he was on the field. They did not trust themselves and hid behind the enormous shadow that Messi can cast over a side. This thankfully short era featured players and systems which were simply not good enough. In this time watching even the greatest player of all time was regularly a painful ordeal. 

Simultaneously the 90 minutes would drag along, time crawling by whilst also feeling nowhere near long enough for Messi to impact the game. It felt like only by extending Argentina matches to 4 hours long could we hope to see Messi do half of what he does in a game for Barcelona. With just the standard 90 minutes, Messi was usually limited to one good piece of play per Argentina game (be it one good dribble, pass, shot etc.) and one half chance (usually a free kick from a long way out). Messi scored 11 goals in 20 appearances in this period, but was scoreless in 14 of the games.

But sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better and the fourth era has been by far the best of Messi’s career. That era spans from after the Copa America when Scaloni was getting to grips with the job and now, in which time Scaloni has only lost once, Argentina being unbeaten in the 35 matches they’ve played since that semi-final loss to Brazil with Leo scoring 22 in 28. 

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It’s been in this era where Messi has at long last looked as comfortable in an Argentina shirt, as he once did in a Barcelona shirt. It’s taken well over 100 games, but for Messi and Argentina it’s been worth the wait. He’s in a team alongside young, hungry players who grew up idolising him, watching his near misses on television as their inspiration suffered final defeat after final defeat. They are hungry but full of talent and personality too, being led on by a manager in Scaloni who has done one of the best jobs of anyone in recent times. He came in with Argentina a mess and he has rapidly turned it drastically around. Naturally he’s built around Messi, but in a way that does not over-rely on him. If he’s in a good position they’ll get him the ball as quickly as possible, if he’s not they’re not afraid to try and find a route to goal involving the others. In the past Argentina had been guilty of overloading Messi with the ball, and seeing him as their only path to victory. This would eventually fatigue Leo both physically and mentally, as he dealt with the psychological pressure of knowing he was his side’s only chance of winning. 

Performance wise he’s in the best form of his Argentina career and he’s also rediscovered his highest level with club side PSG. It’s hard to envisage a way that Messi could possibly go into this World Cup in a better place. He’s been Man of the Match most games this season playing alongside Mbappe and Neymar and he’s with an Argentina side that hasn’t lost a fixture in over 3 years. Many feared Leo would never have a better chance to win the World Cup than he did the night he lost a World Cup final in 2014, and that looked almost certainly to be the case after the debacle in Russia. But now aged 35, Lionel Messi has arguably never been better placed to make a World Cup, his. 

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