Argentina suffered an ignominious 3-1 defeat to Venezuela in March at Atletico Madrid's Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, thousands of miles from home for both sides. About 20,000 people showed up to watch the game, and it was only the second time in 24 attempts that Venezuela had defeated the two-time FIFA World Cup winners.
Argentina's line-up was full of inexperienced internationals except for one man—their captain, Lionel Messi. Most of the men who soldiered alongside Messi during his international career—like Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuain and Martin Demichelis—have retired. The last few hanging on—Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Nicolas Otamendi—sat out the game, as their clubs were reaching the business end of the season.
One wondered why Messi, who was on the verge of turning 32 and had a UEFA Champions League quarter-final clash against Manchester United on the horizon, was bothering to play a nothing friendly. The answer was that he clearly cares. He was rewarded with one moment of promise.
As the game approached the hour mark, Argentina broke forward in a counter-attack. A Venezuela defender made the mistake of heading a clearance into Messi's orbit, and he controlled it on the run by cushioning the ball twice on his chest and then with his right foot. In the same instance that he had to wriggle free from a snapping tackle, he drifted the ball into the path of Giovani Lo Celso, who was haring up alongside him on the left flank, with another touch.
Le Celso then threaded a pass in to Lautaro Martinez, who clipped it first time around Venezuela's onrushing goalkeeper to score. It was a glimpse of Argentina's football future.
Messi, the old hand, is still as lethal as ever, having scored 51 goals in 50 games last season. The 23-year-old Lo Celso is, like Messi, a product of the famous Rosario production line and a key signing by Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur during the summer.
Inter Milan's Martinez, 22, has an impressive strike rate for Argentina—eight goals in eight starts this year. Three of those goals came on Tuesday night in an eye-catching 4-0 win over Mexico at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas; Leandro Paredes got the fourth goal.
"Argentina is going through a period of transition, an overhaul of its squad," says Matias Bustos Milla, a journalist with Argentinian newspaper Clarin. "There is a changing of the guard after the retirement of so many of the players who reached the 2014 World Cup final. The squad is full of much younger players now.
"It's what Messi needs because of his age. Messi is not the little kid anymore. The squad needs renewal, fresh legs, younger players who are part of a new wave. Players who bring a dynamism to the team, an energy that can help to support Messi's brilliance."
The squad is not the finished article. Argentina have yet to settle on a convincing goalkeeper. The defence is still ropey, but the appearance of Lo Celso and Paredes—both of whom debuted for the national team in 2017—as anchors in midfield is encouraging.
Paredes, who Paris Saint-Germain signed in January for €40 million excluding add-ons, according to ESPNFC, is a player whom Sam Kelly—Buenos Aires-based founder of the Hand of Pod podcast—singles out as one of Messi's important new lieutenants.
"One thing Argentina have missed since the 2016 Copa America final [defeat on penalties to Chile] is a commanding presence in midfield, someone at club level who is operating at the very elite in Europe," says Kelly.
"During the Copa America this summer, Paredes started to [impress], although he was a bit iffy—as was the case with a lot of the team—at the beginning of the tournament. By the end of it, he had really played his way into. It was like he had decided at last that he was going to be Argentina's main man in central midfield.
"One of the positives, for example, that Argentina could take from their 0-0 draw with Chile last weekend was that tandem in midfield between Lo Celso, Paredes and Rodrigo de Paul. Paredes is at the centre of that—he keeps the team ticking over, passing out of defence. He's the biggest leap in quality Argentina have had in that position for the last few years since Javier Mascherano retired."
Messi will be forever haunted by Argentina's loss to Germany in the 2014 FIFA World Cup final in Brazil (and to a lesser extent its near misses in the Copa America finals of 2015 and 2016). He was arguably within a whisker—or specifically a couple of scuffed chances by Higuain and Rodrigo Palacio—from winning football's greatest prize. The manner in which he came so close, dragging an average team through the early stages of the finals, still holds some merit with football fans in Argentina.
"Fans are still very proud of the team's performance," says Kelly. "It shouldn't go unnoticed that Argentina's 2014 side are the only South American team to reach a World Cup final since Brazil won it in 2002.
"It's a long period now of European domination because of the global economics of football, and the concentration of the world's best talent at top European clubs, who can help their own national teams to have a bunch of players training together week in, week out, in a way South American sides can't enjoy. It was a big achievement for Argentine football in that context. They also look back on it with some frustration: 'How close we were.'"
There were, of course, factors beyond Messi's control in that game. He has an extraordinary ability to bend the ball to his will, but he can't regulate everything in the universe. The element of luck—or bad luck—is something that Fernando Signorini, who worked as a fitness coach with Messi at the 2010 World Cup finals, highlights when it comes to analysing Messi's experiences with his national team.
"For Messi to win an international trophy is not an obligation. It's a possibility," says Signorini. "Leo played in the World Cup final against Germany and he didn't win it because his team fell a fraction short. Most of the people that demand he must win something for Argentina have not won anything themselves.
"Sport is like this: Athletes compete to win. They give it their best effort. Sometimes another team is superior. Sometimes luck comes into play. Sometimes the inferior team wins despite the actions of the better team. In sport, it's not entirely about the final result.
"Of course it's important for Messi to win an international trophy for his reputation in Argentina, but Messi's case reminds me of Stirling Moss, the Formula 1 driver. He was a champion without a crown, a marvellous driver. Or Johan Cruyff with Holland. He didn't win a World Cup, but people remember him for other moments. For people who truly love football, the only important thing is that we continue to be delighted with Messi's performances, the beauty of his game."
Messi has played 136 times for Argentina. By the time he retires, he'll probably have one of the highest tallies of international appearances for a top-class footballer in history. It seems he might still have another couple of shots at winning an international trophy. Next summer, Argentina will co-host the Copa America finals with Colombia.
Given the relatively small playing pool of countries in South America, Argentina are always among the favourites to win the tournament—although remarkably they haven't managed to do so since 1993. Uruguay have an aging side. Only Brazil have improved since the last FIFA World Cup finals, but they are not unbeatable.
Messi has grown into his role as the team's leader. He's coming out of his shell. He has, for instance, made a couple of stirring pre-season speeches as club captain with Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Many Argentina fans weren't disappointed to see him react angrily to CONMEBOL, the ruling body of South American football, following Argentina's exit from the Copa Americain the summer. His allegations of "corruption" earned him a three-month suspension from international football, meaning he missed this latest round of games, and a $50,000 fine.
"The reputation of Messi varies amongst Argentinian people," says Bustos Milla. "Messi—including his performances in the Copa America last summer—has grown into a leadership style that is more anti-establishment. He's more of a rebel. Messi recently has demonstrated less composure. It has won him plaudits with Argentina's fans. In Argentina, we often like those leaders who are imperfect, passionate, temperamental.
"It's a big desire in Argentina that Messi achieves success with the national team and more so that he does it on home soil next summer in the Copa America. We don't believe that Messi owes us something. It's the other way around—that football and the Argentinian national team owes Messi. It will be amazing if they win the Copa America."
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