It's certainly not the most impressive of Lionel Messi's achievements, not by some distance, but it's impossible not to admire a soccer player who can answer the biggest question of his career by simply not answering it. The suggestion that Messi couldn't be considered one the all-time greats — if not the all-time greatest — without winning anything with Argentina has, as the seasons have ticked by and the goals have racked up and the Ballons d'Or have rolled in, simply faded away. We're almost certainly at the point where if Messi retired tomorrow, the fact that his international record consists of three runner-up medals and an Olympic gold wouldn't in any way temper or diminish the gushing that would surely follow.
But on the other hand, even if we can all agree that Messi's status is fairly assured by now, it does look a bit … odd. Peculiar. Imbalanced, maybe. The reasons aren't particularly mysterious. International tournaments take place at the ends of long seasons, and Messi plays more soccer than almost any other human. Furthermore, international soccer is a chaotic thing, and Argentina, though they've generally been able to call on the best individual player, has rarely had the best all-round team, both in terms of the first eleven and in terms of having a solid identity and tactical plan. Still, despite that, they've pushed the best teams close: Germany to extra-time in the 2014 World Cup; and Jorge Sampaoli's exhilarating Chile side to penalties in the 2015 Copa America. Messi scored his, which was perhaps a surprise.
If we're honest, the question has never been just "can Messi win a major international tournament?" Because that question is the same as "can Argentina win a major international tournament?" and, looking at this year's Copa, the answer is the same as it has been for the last few. Yes, because this is one of the stronger squads in the competition, but maybe not, if they can't find a way of overcoming the imbalances within that squad. Results from the early stages of World Cup qualification have been mixed. But regardless, while an ordinary Messi turning in ordinary performances and riding, say, Angel di Maria's coattails to the Copa would count, technically, that's not the itch that wants scratching.
The question, deep down, has always been: can Messi take a major international tournament, bend it to his talent, then break it to his will. Like Maradona did, like Zidane did, like Garrincha did. This is not the only test of greatness, and it is not a necessary one. It is, though, one of the most spectacular, in part because international tournaments still — just about, despite the best efforts of modern football — retain their place as the competitions that best capture the wider imagination. Winning a league title may well be a better and more rigorous test of a player and a team, and winning the Champions League probably does involve beating better teams. But dragging a country to the top of the pile resonates. It is the dream of more innocent times.
International tournaments — even rubbish ones — are wonderful things. They are delirious pile-ups of soccer, and seeing one of the greats take that wonderful thing in hand is, for the neutral, another kind of wonderful. So as another tournament rolls around, perhaps we can consider the question of "Can Messi do it?" in a slightly more relaxed light. He doesn't need to; he's got nothing to prove to anybody. But it's hard not to want him to, just once, before his career winds down. A Messi summer, to go with all those Messi autumns, winters and springs.