It’s a funny thing, talking about what an athlete deserves. Sports are the ultimate results-oriented business, where no matter how much you love your mother or how kind and considerate you are to lovers and waiters or even how well you played in any given game, if the final whistle blows and you look up at the scoreboard and the other team has more points than yours, then they get the trophy and you go home with nothing, and that’s that.
But it’s hard to feel like any athlete deserves anything more than Lionel Messi deserves to win the World Cup. Messi is the iconic player of his generation and quite possibly of all time, his brand of sporting superiority so vivid and searing and electric in color that it can’t even be classified along the traditional light spectrum. He does the hardest, coolest things in his sport way more often than anyone else, and does so with an ease and grace and artistry that makes watching his every match a beatific experience. He was the lodestar around which the greatest club team of all time was centered, has continued to shine just as bright even after the manager and players that made that team what it was have faded away, and, now at the age of 30, could very well be in the midst of his most impressive career accomplishment yet.
On top of all that, he has become this legendary player after leaving his motherland as a boy, giving his entire heart and soul to his country in search of validation and acceptance from his skeptical countryman, only to repeatedly come up just short in agonizing fashion, receiving only ridicule and distrust from many fellow Argentines in response. Messi is the best player, has won and earned just about every single trophy and plaudit a player could imagine, regularly plays exceptionally well for club and country, wants nothing more than to win something for his country, and lacks only one that thing, a World Cup trophy, to permanently seal his place as the greatest player to ever lace up boots. This is what it means to say Messi deserves to win a World Cup, in every sense of the word.
And yet, on the doorstep of what will probably be the last World Cup of his prime—an idea founded on the premise that even Lionel Messi won’t still be Lionel Messi as a 35-year-old in 2022, which is just about the safest supposition imaginable when dealing with mere humans but could plausibly prove erroneous in regards to this alien—Messi not only looks very unlikely to win next summer’s World Cup in Russia, there’s a terrifyingly large chance Argentina won’t even make it there. That’s right: If World Cup qualifying ended today, one of the five historically strongest international teams in the world would find themselves outside the tournament after yet another dismal showing yesterday in a game they should’ve won easily. This is both a tragedy and a travesty, and despite Argentina’s historical place in world soccer and their current embarrassment of attacking riches, it still looks like Messi is in a one-man fight to save Argentina and his legacy.
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Argentina’s match against Peru was typical of so many Argentina matches in the Messi era. It involved Messi dropping deep to pick up the ball, Messi either running through the entire defense or otherwise bypassing the defense with a cutting pass, and then Messi shooting or setting up his teammates to shoot, only for them to fail. In short, Messi did practically everything, by himself, and it wasn’t enough:
As great as Messi is at so many things, a team that relies on Messi to do so much is bound to fail. Everything Messi does he does with an eye toward getting the ball into the net. This is of course a good thing in general, but asking such an attack-minded player to not only be the team’s final-third creator and finisher but also the player who transitions play from defense to midfield and midfield to attack (seriously, watch the video above and note how often there are about five or six Argentine players ahead of him, at times forced to drop so deep in order to advance the ball to where it needs to go that he picks up the ball just in front of his own central defenders) will only create a team that’s easy to stymie, totally dependent as it is on a single player; a team that has no fluidity or shared sense of involvement; and ultimately a team that wastes the talents of its deadliest weapon.
Messi individually had a pretty good game last night. He took two shots, one of which hit the post, he succeeded in seven of his 12 dribble attempts, and created six shots for his teammates. But because he wasn’t able to steer his shots goalward and because he was setting up the likes of Dario Benedetto and Alejandro Gómez for those great chances (by the way, how on earth does a nation with Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero and Mauro Icardi wind up relying on attackers like Benedetto and Gómez in a massive game like this?), Argentina didn’t score and had to settle for a disappointing scoreless draw. It would be easier to blame Messi for his team’s shortcomings—you can already hear the Cristiano Ronaldo fanboys starting up with something like “Ha-ha! Typical selfish Messi, so insistent on doing everything by himself that he gums up the team dynamic of what should be a really good team!”—if it weren’t so clear that he is the only Argentine who tries to do anything at all, and how much worse Argentina have looked when Messi wasn’t playing. This team has tried the Give It To Messi And Stand Around While He Makes Something Out Of Nothing Philosophy for years now, and while it got them to two consecutive Copa América finals and even to the final of the last World Cup, Messi’s heroics are not so superhuman as to make it a viable strategy in the long run.
As disastrous as Argentina’s World Cup qualifying cycle has been, they are somehow still in a relatively decent spot. Next week Argentina will go to Ecuador to play the final game of CONMEBOL qualifying. All they have to do is beat the already eliminated Ecuadorians to keep their World Cup dream alive. A win, depending on what happens in the other matches, would see them either qualify for the World Cup automatically or at least put them into a home-and-home playoff match against New Zealand for a spot in the tournament. They should be big favorites against Ecuador and would be the same against New Zealand, though with how they’ve played of late, there are no guarantees.
If Argentina do manage to back their way into the World Cup, it’s hard to see it happening any other way than Messi dragging them to it with a stunning run and goal or two, or a pass so exquisite and defense-shattering that even his unerringly diffident strike partners couldn’t fail to slam into the back of the net. In light of everything Messi has already done in his career and what he continues to do for Barcelona and for Argentina, getting to Russia next summer would be the very least he deserves. Whether he gets that and even more by leading the Albiceleste to a shocking title run while there, or if instead Argentina don’t even qualify and he’s forced to watch from home as lesser players in better setups fight for the single most coveted trophy in all of sports, ultimately—depressingly—it probably won’t have much to do with Messi’s own merits. The universe is unfair, and sports are no exception.