After Argentina's dramatic 3-0 defeat by Croatia on Thursday in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, a nation was brought to tears.
"In general, people here are talking of catastrophe," says Fernando Signorini, who worked as a fitness trainer at several of Argentina's World Cup finals, including their last victory in 1986 as well as 2010, Messi's second tournament.
It is the first time since the 1974 World Cup that Argentina have failed to win one of their opening two games. The shock of the defeat to Croatia—following a 1-1 draw with Iceland, the smallest nation to ever play in the World Cup finals—seemed to rock the country to its core, generating a mix of anger, frustration and sadness.
"There is a sense of desperation," says Signorini. "It is something without explanation because it is only a football match, but here football is naturally a subject to talk about in life-or-death terms.
"In Argentina, there are more serious things happening. It is a country that has been losing for a while, economically and politically, and also with its football team. Our football has been in decline in the last years, at all levels, and you reap what you sow. That is what is happening now with Argentinian football.
"The future of Argentinian football is like the future of society in Argentina. The future is the past. Because we were once a great country, a wonderful and admired country, and in football it was the same—we were once wonderful and admired. Now nobody admires us, and our football is not wonderful anymore."
The scale of the reaction, the sense of devastation engendered by a group stage defeat, has surprised onlookers around the world. Alejandro Pawliszyn, a psychologist working in Buenos Aires, Argentina, says he notices a sense of embarrassment among his compatriots, manifesting itself in silence at the loss to Croatia. This feeds into a sense of insecurity at the state of the Argentinian economy, which is suffering from galloping inflation that has led to intervention by the International Monetary Fund in early June, per the Financial Times.
"A lot of the reaction here is processed by a sense that Argentina is cursed—that we're cursed politically and with the national football team," Pawliszyn says. "What I keep sensing from people is a sense of powerlessness: 'What's going on that we cannot get it right with our politicians, with the football coach, Jorge Sampaoli, and with the team? Why isn't Messi playing well?' This is especially true now that the economy is in trouble again. There is a sense that, 'Whoa, we've seen this movie before.'"
It would be no surprise if the Argentina football team—which is rumoured to be mired in conflict with their coach, Sampaoli—is seeking professional counselling. Argentina, according to independent studies as well as those by the World Health Organization (h/t CNN), has the most psychologists per capita in the world. Pawliszyn says there are several factors that explain the country's interest in therapy, including a history of immigration and its culture.
"There is a tradition of reflection and subjectivity here," Pawliszyn says. "It's part of the self-image of Portenos, people from Buenos Aires, where psychoanalysis and psychotherapies are popular, whereas maybe in the United States you have a stronger tendency to take action. A lot of people here, their self-identity is to think and reflect and talk."
Pawliszyn also points towards a sense of fatalism when it comes to the country's football team. "You also have the influence, historically, of Catholicism here," he says. "When you see other countries' players in the World Cup, they're not praying. They're not looking up to the sky to God during matches. They're not evoking other worldly forces. The Argentina footballers are too preoccupied with ideas of fortune or misfortune, or energies, which are all part of the tradition of football here, whereas performance is about precision, practice and effort. It's not about good luck or justice. Our footballers are too lost in those notions."
There was a striking image before Argentina's match against Croatia: As Messi stood for the national anthem. he kept rubbing his fingers against his forehead. He looked like a man with the weight of the world on his back. The little No. 10 has become the focus for all of Argentina's hopes and fears at this summer's World Cup.
"The feeling that he portrays is of a person who can't deal with the pressure," says Matias Bustos Milla, a journalist with Argentinian newspaper Clarin. "The body language he showed against Croatia is not normal. We're not accustomed to seeing Messi with these kinds of gestures. We were surprised when we saw him. He's not the kind of leader that gives a team speech. He does his talking on the pitch. Outside the field of play, everything with Messi is a big incognito.
"There is too much pressure on his shoulders. He's overburdened. There are 40 million Argentinians dreaming that Messi will deliver us the World Cup. In fact, in Argentina, there are more people here who want Messi to win it more than the national team itself. There is a huge desire to see Messi alone win the World Cup."
Bustos Milla says there have of course been other failures by Argentina in the World Cup. In the 2002 tournament, the team arrived for the finals in Japan and South Korea as the leading qualifiers from the South American zone, and were coached by the revered Argentinian manager Marcelo Bielsa, but were dumped out in the first round. But the crisis in Russia—even though Messi's team only scraped through qualifying—could surpass that failure. "Now we have Messi," Bustos Milla says. "If we lose in the first round with Messi this time, it will be seen as the worst failure in our history."
The critics have been circling Messi. Bustos Milla says there have been calls for him to be dropped. Comparisons have been made with Cristiano Ronaldo, the marque player on a workmanlike Portugal team, who has scored four goals in three games so far in the tournament. Messi is scoreless, having missed a penalty against Iceland.
After the defeat to Croatia, a leaked tape of an alleged WhatsApp conversation between Diego Simeone, who won over 100 caps for Argentina, and his assistant coach at Atletico Madrid, German Burgos, concluded with Simeone asking the rhetorical question, "If you had to choose between Messi and Ronaldo for your team, who would you pick?"
People question why Messi hasn't replicated the stunning success he has enjoyed with his club team, Barcelona, including four UEFA Champions League titles, with the national team.
"Messi has had the bad luck to live in the most convulsive era of the Argentina national team in the last few decades," Martin says. "He's worked under seven coaches in 10 years. That affects the operation of the team. Another of the great differences are the teammates he has had at Barca and those he has had with the national team—teammates who speak their own football language at Barca and teammates with Argentina who have been less compatible for his style of football."
Messi has come painfully close to success with his country. He lost three finals in successive years—the 2014 World Cup final against Germany and the two subsequent Copa America finals in penalty shootouts, the latter of which prompted Messi to retire from international football, a decision he later U-turned on. Results in football can be arbitrary, though. The best team doesn't always win.
"If it wasn't for Messi in the last World Cup finals in Brazil, Argentina wouldn't have got out of the group stages and went on to almost win it," Signorini says. "For me, Brazil is the team that has played the best football in most of the World Cups, but it has lost more than it has won. Why? Because football is not like boxing—you can't win on points. You have to win by a knockout. So in one match, anyone could hit you in the jaw and send you home."
Argentina will face Nigeria on Tuesday in their final group game in Russia, and the Argentinian nation will hold its breath. Its team—which seems to be in disarray—has to administer a decisive blow. It must win to proceed to the knockout stages. Memories of Messi's heroics against Ecuador in the last qualifying match in October, when he scored a hat-trick to help Argentina to come from behind for a 3-1 victory, are fresh in the mind.
"Before the World Cup finals in Russia," Bustos Milla says, "we knew we didn't have a great team, but we still had the illusion of becoming champions because always in Argentina in every tournament we feel Argentina can be champions. This generates great enthusiasm but grief and disillusionment then when we lose, like after the defeat against Croatia.
"There is a flip side. If Argentina qualified to the round of 16, immediately it will generate again the same kind of positive thoughts for Argentina to become champions. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Hope will be renewed. Argentina will be revitalised. I am part of this group that thinks with Messi everything is possible, but my hope is more with what Messi could do rather than with the rest of the team. Nobody knows how the team will play."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz.