Will Lionel Messi finally achieve success with Argentina?
Background photo: Nakhon100, CC BY 2.0
The world opened its doors when a 17-year-old named Lionel Messi led Argentina to the 2005 U20 World Cup in the Netherlands. He tasted international glory once again with the U23s at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Then the doors closed. A youth World Cup and Olympic gold medal are all Messi has to show for his international career. No World Cups or Copa Americas with the senior squad. His international failures provide unwanted ballast that takes the wind from the sails of a prolific club career.
At Barcelona, the awards come thick and fast:
- 4 Champions League titles
- 9 La Liga titles
- 6 Copa del Reys
- 8 Spanish Super Cups
- 3 UEFA Super Cups
- 3 Club World Cups
- 16x Barcelona top scorer
The accolades follow:
- 5 Ballon d'Ors
- 3x UEFA Best Player in Europe
- 2x Argentina Player of the Year
- 1x Barcelona Player of the Year
On his day, Messi can tear down any defence and single-handedly lead his team to glory. The difference between him and any other superstar not named Cristiano Ronaldo is that his day is otherwise known as pretty much every day. His scoring statistics are rivalled by just one player. His passing is inch-perfect, his dribbling unbelievable. All that skill, all those titles, convince many to rate him as the greatest of all time.
The doubters point to his inability to add to Argentina's two World Cup and 14 Copa America triumphs. It is not for lack of trying. In fact, it might be due to trying too hard. Since debuting for La Albiceleste in 2005, Messi has played for eight managers. All made him the focus in attack, the rest of the squad charged with feeding him the ball. But Argentina's toughest competition finds ways to contain Leo and the various tacticians never revealed an effective Plan B.
From 2014-16, Messi competed in three major finals, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the 2015 Copa America in Chile and the 2016 Copa America Centenario in the US. Argentina lost each one. All three went to extra time. The only goal came from Germany's Mario Gotze in Brazil. Chile defeated the Sky Blues on penalties in successive years. In 360 minutes of high-stakes football, Lionel Messi was held off the scoresheet. It isn't an anomaly. His scoring records for club and country differ vastly. Per Transfermarkt:
- In 674 games for Barcelona, Messi has 591 goals or 1:1.14 games
- In 131 Champions League games, Messi has 108 goals, 1:21 games
- In 129 games for Argentina, Messi has 65 goals, 1:1.98 games
- In 21 Copa America games, Messi has eight goals, 1:2.62 games
- In 19 World Cup games, Messi has six goals, 1:3.16 games
Barcelona relies heavily on Messi albeit not exclusively. World-class finishers share the Camp Nou pitch with him every year. Samuel Eto'o. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ronaldinho. David Villa. Pedro. Andres Iniesta. Luis Suarez. Ousmane Dembele. Even while sharing the spotlight with those great players, the maestro still contributes close to a goal per game. Argentina boasts even more top finishers than Barca, yet its managers keep finding reasons to leave many at home or on the bench during international weeks. Without those other threats to distract defenders, Messi finds goals at roughly half the rate with La Albiceleste.
Everyone asks the same question. Can Messi finally achieve success with Argentina?
The numbers don't lie. They don't say no either. Rather, Messi's own statistics say he can flourish with Argentina if current manager Lionel Scaloni not only includes and starts scorers like Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, Angel di Maria and Mauro Icardi but devises schemes to spread the ball around, seeking to involve everyone in the final third. When defences must deal with several threats, Messi becomes more effective.
At this point in time, Scaloni is following the example laid out by his predecessors. All Messi, all the time. Argentina lost to Venezuela 3-1 on Friday in Madrid. Leo returned to the squad for the first time since the World Cup. Of the other top strikers available, Scaloni only named Paulo Dybala, who did not feature, and Inter's up and coming young star, Lautaro Martinez, who scored La Albiceleste's only goal on an assist from Real Betis [on loan from Paris Saint-Germain] midfielder Giovanni Lo Celso.
Venezuela featured a multi-pronged attack. Newcastle's Salomon Rondon, Atlanta United's Josef Martinez and CD Tondela's Jhon Murillo all made the scoresheet.
The solution is there for anyone to see when they accept that, as talented as Lionel Messi is, he remains one man. A football squad requires eleven.