Argentina's Messi problem: Myth and Reality

Criticism of Lionel Messi has become harsh, but how much of it is warranted, and what’s off base?

Mario Kempes, star of Argentina’s first World Cup-winning team, on home soil in 1978, said:

"He must be bored, tired or disgusted, he gives everything for Barcelona but doesn't for Argentina.”

Kempes isn’t the first Argentine to criticize Messi that way -- questioning Messi’s dedication to La Albiceleste.

Messi, who turned 31 on Sunday, moved to Barcelona at age 13. But he has played for Argentina 126 times. In addition, he led Argentina to the 2005 U-20 World Cup title and its U-23s to the 2008 Olympic gold medal.

The problem, of course, is that while Messi has won nine La Liga titles and five UEFA Champions League crowns with Barcelona, he hasn’t led Argentina to a World Cup title.

That’s what welcomed 1986 World Cup hero Diego Maradona, whose overall career was far less impressive than Messi’s, into the Argentine pantheon alongside Carlos Gardel and Eva Peron.

But the notion that Messi hasn’t been committed to his national team is absurd.

Here’s a few things to remember:

Messi saved Argentina’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. Entering the final game of the marathon South American qualifying campaign, the world’s most arduous and competitive path to the World Cup, in sixth-place, La Albiceleste conceded a goal after 40 seconds at Ecuador in high altitude Quito. Messi scored a hat trick and Argentina booked a ticket to Russia.

It was thanks to Messi that Argentina reached the 2014 World Cup final. He scored the winning goals against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iran (in the last minute) in group play and struck twice in a 3-2 win over Nigeria. Argentina, weakened by injuries to Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero, fell in the final to Germany, 1-0, on an overtime goal.

In qualifying play for the 2014 World Cup, Messi played in 14 of the 16 qualifiers, matched only by goalkeeper Sergio Romero, and led the team with 10 goals and set up several others.

He spent the next two summers after the 2014 World Cup playing for Argentina, which fell to Chile in both the 2015 Copa America and 2016 Copa America Centenario finals on penalty kicks.

Three finals in three years, that’s not so shabby for a guy who played 50-plus other games each year for Barcelona.

Messi, so distraught about missing his spot kick against Chile in 2016, temporarily retired from the national team. He came back and scored seven of Argentina’s 19 goals in 2018 World Cup qualifying. That Argentina conceded 16 goals shows how crucial Messi’s goals were.

64 Lionel Messi (126 games, 2005-)
54 Gabriel Batistuta (77, 1991-2002)
38 Sergio Aguero (87, 2006-)
35 Hernan Crespo (64, 1995-2007)
34 Diego Maradona (34, 1977-1994)

Argentina’s start to the 2018 World Cup has been woeful, and of course the focus is on Messi, who missed a penalty kick in the 1-1 tie against Iceland. Then came the 3-0 loss to Croatia, which got its first goal on the biggest goalkeeper blunder so far at the tournament -- before Argentina got roasted on counterattacks.

Argentina didn’t enter this World Cup as a favorite, having struggled in qualifying and gotten thumped, 6-1, by Spain in a March friendly while Messi watched while recovering from injury. How much Messi could do to turn Argentina back into the World Cup contender it usually is, was already in question before the tournament.

But simply watching Messi’s reaction to the losses should extinguish any notions that he doesn’t care about his national team.

His distraught figure on the field after the Iceland tie prompted players from both teams to come console him.

The myth is he’s not committed. The reality is Messi is failing as a captain, as a leader. When his teammates witness his reaction after a setback, they infer he’s lost faith the team, in them.

Tying one’s first game at a World Cup doesn’t have to be a big deal. Spain won the 2010 World Cup after losing to Switzerland in its first game.

“I am responsible for what happened,” Messi said after the Iceland game, as if what happened was some kind of disaster.

If Messi felt comfortable as an off-field leader -- and a postgame spokesman for the team -- he would have pulled himself together, shrugged off the setback, and said something like, “We’ll bounce back from this."

He reportedly stayed alone in his hotel room during a team and family barbecue after the Iceland tie.

To advance, Argentina needs to beat Nigeria on Tuesday, and hope that Iceland doesn’t beat Croatia and maintain a better goal difference.

For Argentina to pull that off, Messi's teammates need to take the pressure off Messi. The burden of winning a World Cup for his country has clearly taken its toll.

It's hard not to hope that Messi's teammates do come through. Because it’s a sad to see Messi as such a depressed man when he has brought so much joy, so often to the soccer world with his wonderful talent.

20 comments about "Argentina's Messi problem: Myth and Reality".
  1. Ben Myers, June 25, 2018 at 8:45 a.m.

    Messi is on a deeply flawed Argentine squad.  It has neither world-class defenders nor world-class midfielders.  It has more attacking options than Sampaoli knows what to do with: Aguero, Dybala, DiMaria, Higuain.  The team's attacking tactics should be mindlessly simple.  The other team shuts Messi down, often with two or three defenders, so he gets no space the few times he has received the ball.  Well, these others can finish, too.  But the back line and the midfield seem incapable of winning a lot of balls and passing accurately.  Willy Caballero's gaffe did not inspire the team either.

    Eight national team coaches since 2004?  Some of the blame for Argentine mediocrity falls on the Argentine soccer federation.

    Blame Messi and say he is not one of the greatest?  No way.  No how.  Never, never, never.

  2. frank schoon, June 25, 2018 at 9:40 a.m.

    Messi, is a great player but he is no Cruyff or Pele. He is a very limited player but he is great at what he does. I don't care if he ever wins a world cup, that's not what establishes a player to be great, just look at Cruyff, he never won a world cup, so what! All the years that Messi has been involved with the Argentinian National Team can be summed up as so so ,or nothing to write home about, mediocre. Sure he got Argentina past the qualifications by scoring 3 goals against Who? Ecuador, WOW. Come on that is not how you judge a player's greatness.
    Messi is great in small spaces, and quick ,for he needs a half a meter less to operate in than Ronaldo. That is why you can afford just a little more space to Ronaldo when guarding him but not Messi. Messi when marked closely will never receive the ball with his right foot but always with his left. A real great player like a Pele or a Cruyff can receive with either foot under pressure, thereby creating more options. Messi has a great leftfoot but never passes with the outside of his left foot. If he did, his medium to long range passes would not be so predictable. For example, if Neymar was on the left wing when playing for Barcelona, it would make it easier for Neymar to receive the pass if Messi passed the ball with the outside of the leftfoot, in other words the ball would make a counter clockwise spin thus making the ball go over the defender's (right back) left shoulder. This forces the defender  to choose to either look at the ball or Neymar, but he can't do both. But Messi, instead, always passes with the inside of the instep giving the ball a clockwise spin thereby allowing the defender to be able to watch the ball and Neymar at the same time. 
    Messi when he dribbles is able to touch the ball 4x within 2yards distance ,which unbelievable and is able to change direction, if needed, that's incredible due to his short legs and stature. By passing with the outside of foot he would be able to speed up the tempo giving the defender less time to react.His shooting is great, but only in the penalty area, he really doesn't have a hard shot from outside the penalty area. When is the last time ,you see him dribble full speed on the run and unleash canon...never. 

  3. frank schoon, June 25, 2018 at 10:06 a.m.

    Messi played great when he has great midfielders behind him. Xavi made him so much better. Can you imagine if Messi played for Croatia, with having Rakitic and Modric behind him...BINGO. This is why Messi can dissappear during a game and not even know where he is half the time...that Croatia game is a perfect example. Ronaldo has the ability to create for himself, you won't ever see him disappear. Ronaldo has a presence which Messi lacks. Presence a is very important aspect. Cruyff never knew what his starting lineup was, he waited until after warmups on the field before he decided. If you didn't show or appear to have a presence out there during the warm up , you didn't start. Cruyff or Pele, or Beckenbauer have PRESENCE, you knew where they where during the game, for they dictate. PELE, CRUYFF, BECKENBAUER could play for a lousy team, like Messi with Argentina, but they have a PRESENCE out there, unlike Messi who could disappear.
    Don't blame the lousy coach of Argentina, for if Messi had any leadership qualities, like Cruyff or Pele then this guy would never have been coach. IT IS THAT SIMPLE. There is too much at stake, money, reputation and  to make sure that you excell as a player, Cruyff and Pele knew which players to select that would be best them , the team, and the goal to be achieved at hand.
    Messi is not a cerebral player, like Cruyff who also has great leadership qualities and who is able to see game like no one else, but Messi is Messi who just likes to play soccer and doesn't want to be bothered with all the other aspects of the game. Just let him do what he is good at and give him the support in what he needs to excell at. Nothing more, nothing less.
    Messi has added beauty to the game of soccer, and I hope there is another one in the making, for  what I see currently, right now, it is slim pickens. This is why I want to training/ coaching philosophy to start emphasizing INDIVIDUALITY again, for we're running out of real great stars. There programmed training and coaching.....  

  4. frank schoon replied, June 25, 2018 at 10:13 a.m.

    Meant to say, our training and coaching is too programmed, for INDIVIDUALITY to flourish.... 

  5. Kent James, June 25, 2018 at 11:47 a.m.

    This article has it about right.  I thought Messi was good in the first game, just not quite Messi-like (the shots he created tended to go just outside the post rather than just inside).  As the author notes, Messi has carried Argentina for years. Messi is best when those around him can play his game; he is able to get the ball to people in spaces no one else can.  Messi is a simple player, but he simply stops, starts and changes directions faster than any other player (even when he has to carry the ball and they don't), and his finishing is usually incredibly accurate.  He operates in a different time dimension than anyone else.  That being said, the last game was not a good one; he rarely got the ball (though when he did, always with 3 around him, he was usually productive), and unlike Messi, he didn't seem to try very hard to get it (either offensively or defensively), so some criticism of that game is certainly fair.  I hope he's able to step it up and lead Argentina in the next game.  Usually I favor the underdogs, but Messi deserves some success with Argentina.

  6. Richard Broad, June 25, 2018 at 12:41 p.m.

    Lionel Mesi is one of the ALL-TIME GREATS. Nothing that happens at the 2018 World Cup or subsequently on any other stage can change that. End of story.

  7. Bob Ashpole, June 25, 2018 at 3 p.m.

    Lots of good insights here.

  8. beautiful game, June 25, 2018 at 6:54 p.m.

    Kempes et al should talk more about the mediocrity of his NT starting from the back to the middle. That's from where the team momentum starts. It's obvious that Messi feels the weight of the team on his back as he carried them the qualifiers.

  9. Ric Fonseca, June 25, 2018 at 11:41 p.m.


  10. Bob Ashpole replied, June 26, 2018 at 1:22 a.m.

    Even 11 starters are not enough to lift the cup. Teams relying on just 11 starters may get out of a group, but it takes all 20 field players to win the competition. How many times have we seen exhausted teams play a dull final? That has been the real cost of expanding the field.

    Somewhere Frank posted that the competition was better when the field was only 16 teams. I agree. 

  11. frank schoon replied, June 26, 2018 at 10:02 a.m.

    Bob, van Hanegem, in his column today , stated the same thing. He believes we need to go back to  16 contestants for what Fifa is planning to do by increasing the pool will only damage the quality of the game. He personally thinks the WC has gone down in quality after '74, to me , it was after '82 and that is because of player quality as well. But WC'14 did it for me, I have little interested in the WC, for it just isn't what it used to be. Fifa will definitely ruin it with more contestants.
    We have countries, a bunch of them now playing in the WC that don't do anything to advance the game and make it worse for the good teams. These good teams have to win and be on their toes every game and be ready for the next round, but these other weak teams don't have to worry about winning but just showing up and perhaps earn an upset. 
    Look what happened to Panama 6-1,  the Panamian fans acted like they won the WC by having actually score a lone goal, only one ever scored in their history of the World Cup. What are these types of teams doing here in the first place?
    Fans from respected countries in soccer would have a day of mourning. All Panama has done is for England to have to spend much needed energy, perhaps injuries, and much needed rest, to play a country like that. This is what  we're going to get  when you expand the pool of world cup contestants. Give these countries a chance to play in the qualification and if they did decently, give them a WC board game and some WC tickets. To get to be in the top 16, you have to earn and work hard for it, but don't simply expand the list to be more inclusive and diverse for you will only destroy the quality of the WC tournament. It should be quality first and anything after that depends on how you earn it.
    Sooner or later, you will see players before go in subs, due to their warmup routine along the sideline on a stationary bike and top it off with some weighlifting, because that is what you're going playing all these game, not soccer abilities..
    Don't worry with the expansion the US will be in the next WC. They will be placed in a group with Antartica, playing the Penguins home and away, any ship survivors living on islands in Bermuda Triangle , and those living on islands in the Pacific created by volcanoes...

  12. Ric Fonseca, June 26, 2018 at 9:50 p.m.

    A todos en esta pagina de poca fe:  LEO MESSI, SI SE PUDO!!!!

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2018 at 7:01 a.m.

    It took me many years to realize that all the Spanish football books that I read were translated by Englishmen. Ditto for the Dutch books. This is still a problem today. Poorly translated portions of "Pep Confidential" gave me fits. I was tempted to buy the original book and struggle with the language. 

    The poor translations gives additional meaning to Cruyff's famous quip: "If I wanted you to understand, I would explain it better."

  14. frank schoon replied, June 27, 2018 at 9:16 a.m.

    Bob, you have a point on the translation...this is why I buy the books in Dutch not English or if the books are translated into dutch, I still prefer it over English, especially it is meant for the American market.

  15. frank schoon replied, June 27, 2018 at 9:32 a.m.

    Bob, Apparently Sampiola is no longer running the show, Messi is. During the game, he called over Messi to ask if he should sub in Kun Aguero. Messi told him ,yes. Notice, after the game Sampiola went left the field directly and didn't celebrate with the team on the field.  

  16. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2018 at 11:12 a.m.

    Interesting. Messi is so focused on playing. I wonder what he will do afterwards?

  17. frank schoon replied, June 27, 2018 at 12:37 p.m.

    Bob, Who knows. The Argentinian team had prearranged as to will be subbed if needed. Did you watch the Mexican game, I watched the German game. No surprise there. They missed Robben and Ribery, LOL...they dont have players on the wing that can take anybody on 1v1. They are just simply stiffs...

  18. Ginger Peeler replied, June 27, 2018 at 4:09 p.m.

    Amen, Ric!  And, yes, he DID!!!

  19. Ginger Peeler, June 27, 2018 at 4:40 p.m. translations: I took a semester of Danish many, many years ago. The instructor, a Dane, said the most difficult translations are colloquial expressions, especially regarding sports! An example of the difficulty of (non sports) translating? Where we, in the United States say, “he really put his foot in it”... the Danish equivalent is “sto po spinaten” which literally translates as ,”stepped in the spinach”. Our breakfast cereal’s ,”snap, crackle, pop” becomes ,”knisper, knasper, knusper”. Even if someone’s comfortable in multiple languages, explaining or instructing a subject from language A into language B often “loses something in the translation”. So THAT’S where THAT expression came from! Fascinating subject. You have to be up to date on the slang of both languages A and B to be a good translator...and slang is constantly changing. 

  20. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2018 at 6:39 p.m.

    Ginger, exactly. Like humor and poetry. Lost without cultural context. Although with soccer, I think the problem is using translators who are good at novels, but unfamiliar with the technical terms of soccer. Although it is the same type of problem as colloquial expressions.  

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