Messi and his countrymen came into the tournament with high hopes, but after two disastrous results in the group stage, the 2014 runners-up are on the brink of elimination. And between Messi's absurd talents on the pitch, his tenuous relationship with his national team, and the weight being one of the most talented athletes in the world, it's impossible not to look to him with empathy and awe.
Messi has been, with little argument from even his greatest detractors, one of the top two footballers on the planet for the past decade. Through his wizardry on the field, he's brought countless trophies to Barcelona, scoring incessantly and building a highlight reel that other players would kill for even a fraction.
But even with his dominance through La Liga and Champions League and Copa del Rey with Barcelona, success for his country has always eluded him. Aside from a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics — a competition that football fans would be quick to dismiss — Messi's international career with Argentina has been one filled with disappointment, with his team coming close to glory time and time again but always falling just short of reaching the mountaintop.
At the 2014 World Cup Messi carried his country to the final of the tournament, only to fall to Germany in extra time. Four years before that, Argentina was blown out by the Germans 4-0 in the quarterfinals. At Copa America, South America's tournament of nations, the results are even more heartbreaking — Argentina has lost in the final of three of the past four times the tournament was played and fell to eventual champion Uruguay on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the fourth.
In the shadow of Diego Maradona, it's tough to shine without a trophy for your country, no matter how great your talent.
Messi's complicated relationship with the Argentine national team goes beyond mere results. After being diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency, Messi left his home country at just 13 years old to join Barcelona, who had agreed to pay for treatment. While his rise was meteoric through the footballing world, when Messi fell short for his country, people would cite his life spent in Europe and claimed that he "isn't Argentine enough."
After the Copa America Centenario final in 2016, which saw Argentina lose to Chile on penalty kicks with Messi missing his shot from the spot, he called it quits, announcing his retirement from international football. But after a few days to cool off from the disappointment, Messi reconsidered and suited up once again for Argentina to help the team qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
And now we're here at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Four years removed from a second-place finish that could have easily changed the course of Messi's legacy, Argentina is on the brink of not even escaping the group stage after a disappointing draw against Iceland and an absolute dismantling at the hands of Croatia.
In the same moment, Messi's lifelong rival Cristiano Ronaldo has single-handedly willed Portugal to important results in a style that many wish and expect of Messi. Ronaldo, who himself exorcised demons of international failure with a win at Euro 2016, is scoring hat tricks with absolute joy as he carries a nation on his shoulders. All Messi can do is watch and wonder if his burden will ever lighten.
Sports exist as a ceaseless and straightforward metaphor. We watch to see the drama of existence play out on a stage with relatively little actually at stake, trading in the visceral reality of life and death for the relatively safe highs and lows of championships and elimination. And right now, Messi is living a Shakespearean tragedy so on the nose that Hollywood producers would demand a rewrite.
Attempting to carry a nation that struggles to embrace him as their own, a man of supernatural ability who has never faced a challenge he couldn't beat with his creativity, athleticism, and grace shows his mortality.
Anyone who has followed Argentina through this tournament knows that to put the blame squarely on Messi's shoulders. Despite its small population, Iceland has shown it can compete with the best teams in soccer before, and Argentina's breakdown against Croatia had more to do with goalkeeping and defensive mishaps than anything with the team captain. Without Messi, it's likely that Argentina would have failed to even qualify for the World Cup — on the final day of CONMEBOL qualifying, it was Messi who scored a hat trick after his side conceded a 1-0 lead in the first minute of a must-win game to ensure his team made it into the field of 32.
But that's not how these stories are written. It is precisely moments like that that make us believe that Messi can pull his team from the brink to the point that we unfairly expect it of him. Even now, with his back against the wall and needing help from Nigeria to escape the group stage, there is a sense amongst those that embrace him that if anyone can do it, it's Messi.
No matter how it turns out, the drama will be intense, and impossible to look away from.
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