Argentina have always known that Lionel Messi is a rare gem, to be treated with extreme care.
But 14 years after his senior international debut, the Albicelestes still haven’t succeeded in bringing out his best. And the clock is ticking.
When it comes to representing his native country, Messi, soon to turn 32, seems trapped in a time loop.
Every tournament raises massive expectations, every tournament ends in massive frustration. He lifted the Under-20 World Cup in 2007 and won gold at the Beijing Olympics a year later, but has never celebrated a major international title.
“I have to stand up and try again, no matter how many times I fall. This is a good message for the kids, not just in football, but in life. I want to retire having won something with Argentina,” Messi said this month.
With the Copa America about to get under way in Brazil, captain Messi knows it will be one of his final chances to win a major trophy with Argentina. Some of his worst moments in football have been experienced pursuing this elusive prize.
Messi is Argentina’s all-time top scorer with 67 goals, and is not far from becoming their most capped player. He has played 130 times, 17 less than the now retired Javier Mascherano.
But the eight major competitions in which he has appeared for Argentina (four World Cups, four Copa Americas) raised one major question each time: why couldn’t he be the same player Argentines enjoy week in, week out, watching Barcelona on TV?
There have always been two Messis. On the one hand, there is the serial winner moulded by Pep Guardiola into a false nine who excelled in one of the world’s finest club sides, having played with pals Andres Iniesta and Xavi since he was a kid in Barca’s youth academy.
On the other hand, there is the outsider in a turbulent national team full of egos, an unsettled and uncomfortable presence who went an incredible 16 games over two years without scoring a goal, between 2009 and 2011.
Every Copa America brought crisis. Every World Cup raised doubts over his future. Battered, criticised, silent, stressed and stranded – just when Argentines thought they might have broken Messi, he would return to Spain and immediately appear miraculously healed.
Barca was his shelter, where footballing doubts perished and his leadership re-emerged unscathed. Every magical renaissance added nothing but more critics from the other side of the ocean. Why there and not here? What are we doing wrong? What does he need? With every renaissance, more expectations followed. The higher the hopes, the heavier the critics. Over and over again, the cycle would repeat.
But now there’s finally a refreshing twist in this plot. Now, the broken Messi comes from Barcelona.
Defeat by Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final meant a shocking, unlikely exit from the competition for a second year in a row. Then there was another loss in the Copa del Rey final, to Valencia. Barca may have comfortably won La Liga, but expectations were higher and recent press rumours have criticised Messi and his best friend Luis Suarez as “not positive” leaders inside the dressing room.
What if the odds have finally changed? What if Argentina, finally, becomes Messi’s healing clinic?