By Samuel Nwite
The last time Lionel Messi lifted a trophy with an Argentine team was in 2008, when the Olympic team beat Nigeria to the gold medal. Since then, the quest for a major trophy has been trolled by humiliating drought. It’s been 11 disappointing years, and the quest for a trophy, spurred by the hope of millions of yearning fans is still a dream and pains to the young man on whose shoulders the hope and dream rest.
They’ve been to four finals since then, but unfortunately, the finals were only good enough to bring Messi and Argentina close to the dream. The ‘closeness’ doesn’t bring hope but disappointments that have added to the troll, especially when Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi’s rival, is doing quite the opposite with Portugal. Ronaldo has won two major trophies with Portugal, the 2016 Uefa championship, and in 2019, the Uefa Nations League. It is based on these successes with his national team that Ronaldo’s fans conferred the title of the Greatest of All Times (GOAT) on him. Although Messi has more professional trophies (34) than Ronaldo (29), international football has become a yardstick that many people use to rate them.
Lionel Messi’s success in Barcelona is adding weight to this burden, his love for his country and her people has not been justified by a trophy. Not that he is not trying, he has made more close attempts to win than Ronaldo, but it just isn’t working. Coaches have been changed, players have been replaced, and several chances have come by. What then is wrong with Messi’s Argentina?
In 2014, Argentina had the closest chance in recent history to update their trophy status. The world cup in Brazil trumped the memories of early exit in other tournaments, they got to the final. With a star studded squad, hope was so high, the trophy drought has met its match. But the squad didn’t live up to the hope, Argentina lost the world cup to Germany, and Lionel Messi’s team and fans who entertained that hope had to wait for some other time. That time came in 2015, when once again, Argentina reached the final of Copa America. The only hurdle to the title was Chile, beat them and change the story. The trophy was just one shot away, although they took the shot, they didn’t aim right. Chile won on penalties, and the wait continued.
Not for so long anyway, the 2016 Copa America Centenario presented another chance. And once again, the decider match was against a familiar enemy who created a vindictive memory just a year ago, Chile. The assumption was that the Albiceleste had learned their lessons, and the bitterness in the past year’s memory would spur a win. It didn’t happen. Argentina once again lost to Chile, with Messi taking the lost kick. That was 3 finals in 3 years, and it didn’t go down well with him. So he announced his retirement from international football, a decision that drew international sympathy and pleas. Everyone who loves football begged him to rescind his decision, even the Argentine president intervened. So it was a sigh of relief when he reversed his decision, the Argentine team needed their leader because there is still many battles to be won.
Their world cup qualifier campaign was so dismal that it boiled down to the last game. Messi of course, compensated his country for the past loss, scoring hat-trick against Venezuela, and Argentina was on their way to Russia 2018. And there was hope for a trophy once again. But the team performance didn’t support the high held hope, which resulted in their loss to the eventual winners, France. Once again, there was no trophy.
When Cristiano Ronaldo won the UEFA Nations League in 2019, with Portugal, the pressure to add a major laurel to his international closet beckoned on Messi. “There is hope, 2019 Copa America will be the time.” So they said. It was until last night that everyone realized how wrong they have been. The first half of the semi-final match saw Brazil winning 1-0. “Messi will change the game in the second half.” They said. The second half came, and Brazil went up with one more goal, and that was the end of the 2019 Copa America journey for Messi’s Argentina. And the hope is getting really dim. There are only 2020 Copa America and 2022 Qatar world cup left.
What is wrong with the team?
Argentina has some quality players doing well in their various clubs in Europe, but they all live short of the needed quality in the national team. When there is no Messi, the team becomes a joke to watch. The fact that Albiceleste is built around Messi isn’t the problem, the dismal function emanates from lack of needed quality to compete. The forwards are good, talk of Aguero and Messi and there is a trembling in the opponent’s yard. But same can’t be said of the midfield. Argentina’s midfield is so mediocre that it’s easily exposed whenever they meet a big team. And so it’s the defense. So the job isn’t even, and Messi has to play the role of midfielders, which gives the opponents the space to move in on the team. And when they do, the Argentine defense could barely stop them. In cases where there is Messi magic, or a collective breakthrough, there is no guarantee that the goals scored could be defended. The open midfield means that the opponent has a free pass to test a wobbling defense. So every team facing Argentina knows that the best way to beat them is to hold Messi out and the rest of the Argentine team will wallow in helplessness.
The inconsistency in the coaching habit of the Argentine Football Association (AFA) has also contributed immensely to the lackluster performance of the team. AFA has hired four coaches in four years, with each trying to set a pattern, a winning legacy in a very short time. So there is no team philosophy, there is no game ideology, the outcome of every match depends on what the opponents do and what they do not do. And there is no hope for a better team in the nearest future.