- Lionel Messi will reportedly sit out Argentina's remaining matches in 2018, which puts the onus on the country's federation to do what is necessary to optimize conditions for its superstar and a run at the 2019 Copa America title.
We've been down this road before with Lionel Messi, albeit under wildly different circumstances.
Two years ago, after a second consecutive heartbreaking Copa America Centenario final defeat in penalties to Chile, Messi walked away from playing for his country. He acted emotionally and rashly, choosing the immediate moments in the bowels of MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to reveal he was done on the international stage. Of course, it didn't take. Less than three months later he was back dazzling for La Albiceleste, eventually becoming Argentina's all-time leading scorer and single-handedly ensuring its place at the 2018 World Cup with his CONMEBOL qualifying heroics.
Yet after another tumultuous summer, he's apparently decided to take a break again, and it should come as no surprise. Multiple reports on the eve of the new season in La Liga have stated that Messi won't play again for Argentina in 2018 as the 31-year-old star thinks over whether he'll ever put on the national shirt for another match. Given the state of the Argentina national team and federation setup, that's probably the wise call.
There's little to gain from performing in potentially six friendlies over the next three months (including two in the United States against Guatemala and Colombia in September), and with no permanent manager in place and a club season on which to focus, the extra headache, travel and undoubted criticism should things not go perfectly are unnecessary to endure. Playing for one's country is a privilege, not a right, but if any player has earned the benefit of the doubt and is entitled to take a breather during a down period, it's Messi. Whether that breather becomes permanent should be Argentina's chief worry.
“It would be understandable if Messi doesn’t return to the national team,” Argentine veteran Carlos Tevez recently told TyC Sports. “When you give and then you are criticized, it becomes very difficult. I’ve been through that, and at times you don’t want to go.”
All of this puts the onus on Argentina's federation to get its house in order and hire a national team manager fit for the job so it doesn't waste–or even worse, miss–the final prime years of Messi's career. It's no secret that Argentina hasn't won a major trophy at the senior level in 25 years, and the 2019 Copa America presents what is likely the last best chance at Messi and Argentina snapping that streak anytime soon. Messi will be 35 by the time the 2022 World Cup in Qatar rolls around, and if the 2018 World Cup showed anything, it's that La Albiceleste aren't quite near the world's upper echelon.
That doesn't mean it can't be the best on its continent over the course of a few weeks. The task isn't easy, of course, not with Brazil looking like a force for years to come and hosting the anticipated Copa next summer. But with a proper manager ready for the occasion and capable of molding a system to a team–and not the other way around–and a plotted path that includes strategic steps to build a cohesive unit and truly prepare Argentina as is necessary, Messi could walk into a more stable situation.
Argentina doesn't need to craft its every move in deference to Messi, but to not find a way to seize every opportunity while he's still at or near the height of his talent would be a real miscalculation. Any Messi decision regarding the rest of 2018 shouldn't be seen as a threat by the federation, but as a wake-up call–as if it truly needed another one.
All that said, not every superstar is blessed with a happy ending. Zinedine Zidane headbutted his way off stage in the World Cup final and never played again for France, for instance. The lasting image we should have of an international hero like Messi in his country's shirt, in an idealistic world, would a triumphant one, one that makes all of the struggles and defeat worth it in the end. We may just as well wind up with one of him sporting that dejected, teary-eyed look that has become all too familiar in the last four years. For Argentina, the hope is that there's at least one more image of him in a national team shirt at all.