After more than eight months away from the national team, during which time it wasn’t clear if he would play for his country ever again after yet another World Cup disappointment, Lionel Messi is officially back in the Argentina team. And that might not be good for anyone.
Here’s the roster manager Lionel Scaloni has selected to play a pair of friendlies against Venezuela and Morocco later this month:
Your first impulse when coming across this squad list is probably to first scan over to the forwards section and see the presence of Messi. But try not to let Messi’s name distract from the whole. What else do you notice about the group? You should see almost immediately just how thuddingly mediocre the names accompanying Messi’s are.
Of the 31 Argentines called up to play for the national team, only six of them (Messi, Paulo Dybala, Ángel Correa, Leandro Paredes, Ángel Di María, and Nicolás Otamendi) play for Europe’s true elite clubs. Of those six, only two of them (Messi and Dybala) are surefire starters for those clubs; no one has yet discovered a way to play both of them at the same time for the national team. Those two are also the only legitimately world-class players in the squad.
Seventeen of the 31 don’t play for clubs in Europe’s big five leagues, and 14 of them don’t play in Europe at all. Only nine members of the roster announced today made it to Russia for last year’s World Cup. In summary, Argentina’s goalkeepers all play in Latin America, their defenders are, apart from Otamendi, almost complete unknowns, their central midfield is incredibly weak, and their forward line—the area of the pitch Argentina historically are second to none—is wildly inferior to the ones Argies are accustomed to running out with. As has been the case for a couple years now, this team is Messi and a bunch of spare parts.
And yet because Messi is Messi—a player whom much of the Argentine public holds in bafflingly inconsistent regard, denying his individual greatness as demonstrated at club level because he never won anything with Argentina while simultaneously demanding of him a World Cup trophy every four years simply because of his individual presence alone—this mediocre and unproven Argentina team will be expected to win. Messi returning for this round of friendlies almost certainly means that, barring injuries, he will play in this summer’s Copa América in Brazil. Once again, Messi will take the pitch in a big international tournament alongside teammates nowhere near his own ability, and once again he will be expected to drag that team to victory past a deep field that will include teams of much higher team-wide quality and coherence, ones liberated from the crushing expectations that have so visibly weighed upon Argentina over the years. Anything short of lifting the trophy at the end will be seen as yet another massive disappointment.
This toxic environment serves no one. Argentine soccer is at its lowest point in generations. The country simply is no longer producing the kind of talent that made it a powerhouse. The new generation of players that now is starting to assume power in the national team lacks talent, depth, and elite potential—hence so few of them playing for Europe’s best. There are gifted players amongst this generation, and there is potential for some of them to develop into really good players, but because of their youth and inexperience, and because of the country’s need to step back and reassess its culture and development system, this young national team should be given freedom to grow, to make and learn from mistakes, and to play without the intense pressure to win the Argentine public usually places the team under. Messi’s presence means that will not happen.
Messi doesn’t really benefit much from returning to the national team setup either. Even with him in the lineup, Argentina should not be considered favorites to win the coming Copa América. They shouldn’t have been favorites to win any of the tournaments Messi’s unfairly maligned generational cohort played in either, but at least back then the Barcelona forward could count on assistance from a cadre of battle-hardened veterans who were legitimately exceptional players in their own right. The new bunch Messi will take to Brazil this summer has no idea what they’re in for. They will be representing a country that expects them to lose, yet demands that they win, and will savage them should they fail, no matter how admirably that failure comes about. So in the likely case that Argentina leave Brazil with anything other than the trophy, Messi is set to once again face the heartache and blame and acrimony that has plagued his entire career playing for the country he loves.
This hardly seems worth it, but here Messi is, back with the team. By returning to the Argentina setup, Messi has shown just how desperate he is to win something that would at long last earn him the affection of his countrymen. And yet his return at this point, when the Argentina team that would surround him is the worst it’s ever been since he’s been wearing the Albiceleste, only makes it more likely that he’ll incur even more wrath from his ungrateful and unreasonable compatriots.
It’s hard to imagine Messi winning the love he’s after by actually winning a major tournament. Argentina won’t be favorites at either this summer’s Copa or the next one the summer after that, and it would probably take a World Cup trophy for him to fully win Argentina’s heart regardless. Maybe the best hope he has of being thought of by his fellow Argentines as the driven, committed, great player he clearly wants to be seen as is by stubbornly refusing to give up, by enduring disappointment after disappointment and continuing to come back for more in the doomed search for redemption. It would be a pitying kind of love, and would be far less than he deserves, but it might just be the best he can realistically get.