1. Lionel Messi does not need to win the World Cup to be the greatest player of all time. You may think this goes without saying if you’re an ardent week in, week out follower of the club game, but a lot of people aren’t. This, apparently, needs to be reiterated regularly.
2. If you say Messi needs a World Cup to be the GOAT, you don’t love the game. I mean that seriously. I’m not saying that being a “real fan” is classifiable, and if it was, it wouldn’t require watching every single Barcelona match every season. But I think it’s fair to say that if you don’t occasionally catch a Champions League knockout stage match or a La Liga edition of El Clásico, soccer is not one of your big passions. And anyone who does watch those games semi-regularly can tell it’s a much higher level of the sport than the World Cup. It’s not particularly close. And Messi has dominated at that level consistently, every year, for over a decade.
3. Jorge Sampaoli did not put Lionel Messi in a position to succeed against Croatia, and there’s not much anyone could have done against France. Sampaoli admitted himself that the team’s poor performance against Croatia “clouds Messi’s brilliance” and he “didn’t read the match” correctly.
4. But that doesn’t mean Messi couldn’t have given more. Blaming a 3-0 loss on one player is absurd, especially when there were serious tactical problems around him, but it’s OK to say Messi had a bad game. He did. He went a whole 21 minutes without a touch in the first half. He had almost no influence. He had a couple of moments where he dropped deep to find the ball and made an excellent pass after Croatia’s first goal, but that was it.
Messi’s very good performance against France, where he set up two goals, highlighted what was missing in other games.
5. We all saw this coming. Everyone who knows the players in Argentina’s squad knew. Everyone who watched Argentina’s qualifying campaign knew. This team sucks. Messi was never going to drag this Argentina squad — the worst since the early 1970s, at least — to a World Cup trophy. Not a chance in hell. Even with more coherent tactics and a better Messi performance against France, they looked overmatched.
6. Messi’s team let him down all those other times too. His defense collapsed behind him in the 2007 Copa America final. Diego Maradona was an incompetent manager, and Messi’s brilliance was the only reason the team qualified for, then made, the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup. He was one of the best players at that tournament. He won the Golden Ball at the 2014 World Cup. He was the best player at the last two editions of Copa America too, where Chile had a better all-around team and deservedly won the two finals. And he was the only player worth a damn in the draw against Iceland this year, even though he missed a penalty.
7. Maybe Messi should have followed through on his threat to retire. After the 2016 Copa America, Messi said he was quitting Argentina duty following multiple spats with the Argentine FA. He was convinced to return, even though everyone knew nothing would change at AFA. Maybe it would have been better if we were spared watching Messi try to drag a horrible team to success. They would have failed to qualify for the World Cup if he’d stayed retired. Everyone would have laughed at them and applauded Messi’s decision to walk away from a tire fire.
8. Our chance to watch Peak Messi win a World Cup has now passed. Ugh, that sucks to think about. He might still be very good in 2022, but he will no longer be the best player on the planet.
9. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be revered for his role in winning a World Cup. Does anyone remember that Pele wasn’t actually Brazil’s best player in 1970? That he wasn’t quite as good as he was in his younger days, and was instead part of a much better all-around team? To most people, 1970 is Pele’s magnum opus. If a hobbled Messi makes some solid contributions to a better all-around Argentina team in Qatar, he’ll probably be remembered the same way.
10. Maradona is going to talk some absolute shit, isn’t he? We’re going to have to listen to that smug asshole tell us about how Messi doesn’t have his heart and desire. Revolting. Imagine if Messi just chilled on some Europa League team for his entire career instead of competing at the highest level, then talked down to other players for not being competitive enough. I hate Diego Maradona.
11. Messi should still walk away from this hopeless looking program. He had to pay some of their bills in 2016, for God’s sake. Sampaoli, a well-respected coach on the rise in Europe, took the job knowing it might ruin his reputation because he loved his country. They’re not going to find another Sampaoli. The Argentina Under-20 team is the weakest it’s been during Messi’s career, so there aren’t obviously superior reinforcements on the way. Sampaoli resorted to average Argentine league players for a reason — the depth just isn’t there anymore for this team. Javier Mascherano is on his way out. There is no Roberto Ayala or Javier Zanetti on the way. Argentina will not be a favorite at the 2022 World Cup, even if Messi doesn’t step down and continues to play at the highest level.
12. I also hope this isn’t it. I want to see Messi win a Copa America and a World Cup. He’s still the GOAT without them, but he deserves them so much. The idea that Messi is worse than Maradona or Pele drives me nuts, but that stupid idea is now likely to endure forever.