Lionel Messi’s relationship with his own country has long been a difficult one. Argentina has never embraced the 35-year-old like they did Diego Maradona, the icon of La Albiceleste’s 1986 World Cup triumph. Something, however, is changing in Qatar. The 2022 World Cup could be the scene of Messi’s crowning achievement.
In the past, Messi has struggled to find a role for his national team. Argentina looked to him to produce something out of nothing because they had nothing else. The neglect at the level of the country’s football association caused a disconnect between Messi and Argentina with the attacker even retiring from international duty for a spell in 2016.
Now, though, Messi is a leader for Argentina. He appears more comfortable in the shirt of his national team than at any other point of his career, and that has been evident in his performances at the 2022 World Cup so far. Messi is still Argentina’s primary difference-maker, but not everything is down to him.
World Cup glory is the one thing that has evaded Messi over the course of his career. He has won the Champions League three times and countless domestic titles with Barcelona. Messi also added a Ligue 1 title to his trophy collection as a Paris Saint-Germain player last season. One very notable accolade is missing, though.
Messi has played in a World Cup final before, but Argentina were a deeply flawed team in 2014. They were somewhat fortunate to make it as far as the 2014 World Cup final and were beaten by a better team in the form of Joachim Low’s Germany. This time, the dynamic is difference for Lionel Scaloni’s team.
La Albiceleste were on a 36-game uneaten run before they suffered a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening group fixture of the 2022 World Cup. That result was something of a fluke considering the way Argentina were the dominant team, and their response – wins over Mexico, Poland and Australia – highlighted their quality.
Scaloni was initially appointed as Argentina manager as a short-term solution back in 2018, but the former wing back has created a healthy environment in the dressing room. That hasn’t always been the case for Argentina. That in itself has been enough to turn La Albiceleste into a strong unit because talent has never been the problem.
It might only be now that Argentina’s true strength as a team is tested with a challenging quarter-final against the Netherlands on the horizon. “They have great players and a great coach, it’s going to be hard-fought,” said Messi. “It’s the quarter-finals of a World Cup and if a World Cup has been tough from the start, it gets even tougher at this stage.”
Messi is playing like someone who has been unburdened by the heavy weight of expectation even if this might be his final opportunity to win a World Cup. It’s almost as if the 35-year-old has made peace with his situation. If his career doesn’t end with World Cup glory, Messi will still have written his name into legend as the best ever.
There is a sense Messi is growing with every match he plays in Qatar. His display against Australia in the round of 16 was the best by any individual at the 2022 World Cup so far and the Netherlands are next in his sights. Argentina have built a team and incorporated Messi as part of it whereas before there was nothing to support him. 2022 might be the year that comes to define his career.