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The History of Lionel Messi and Argentina vs. the World Cup

The best player in the world has won everything—except a trophy with the full national team. In Russia this summer, Messi’s Argentina drought probably won’t end, but it was never supposed to last this long.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In Argentina, it’s a gambeta.

Derived from the gaucho literature of South American cowboys, the word was initially used to describe the distinctive running motion of an ostrich. Before the industrialization of Argentina’s Pampas, the vast grassland that covers most of the nation’s northeastern pocket, wild-riding gauchos served a vital purpose in an era when farmland had yet to be systematized: They looked after cattle. But as the story goes, the British eventually arrived with their barbed wire, the concept of “fencing” was introduced, and the gaucho didn’t matter anymore.

At least, in everyday life he didn’t. But in the cultural imagination of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he became a romantic figure, if not an outright hero — the rugged, rogue horseman who maintained the order that allowed a nation to form. As city life quickly became just “life,” many tried to cling to the gaucho ideal as an expression of national identity — Argentinidad. But as those symbols drifted further and further from how society actually looked, something else took their place. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in Angels With Dirty Faces, the definitive history of Argentine soccer, “the space gauchos had occupied in the mid-nineteenth century came to be occupied by soccer players.”

Even if you’ve never seen an ostrich in full stride, you’ve likely seen a gambeta as it’s defined today — the choppy, slalom-like, gravity-warping dribble that makes it look like the player in possession of the ball is somehow barrelling downhill, not so much running away from defenders as dodging them as if they were rooted into the ground.

And so, on August 17, 2005, in Budapest, Lionel Messi set off on his first gambeta for Argentina. Soon after being subbed on in the 63rd minute to make his national-team debut, he dropped back to receive a pass from one of his center backs. A little shift of the hips turned him toward goal in no time, but right as those same stuttering steps started to fire into the same rhythm that’s broken just about every defense that’s tried to keep pace since, a Hungarian defender grabbed the 18-year-old’s shirt. Messi tried to swat him away, but after a second grab, he swung his arm back and smacked the defender in the face.

The debut ended 30 seconds after it started. At the time, it must’ve seemed like a minor stumble on a path toward a future that promised great success. That, of course, proved to be an incredible understatement — in both directions. Playing for FC Barcelona, Messi has won five Ballon d’Ors en route to four Champions League titles and nine La Liga victories. Since that red card — the only one in his career — he went on to become the defining talent of his generation, the most important figure in the modern era of the world’s most popular sport, and perhaps the greatest to ever play it. He hasn’t just accomplished everything; he’s done it all many times over.

Yet, once he puts on the Argentina jersey, it’s almost like Messi steps into a photo-negative version of the world he typically inhabits. He’s still basically the same player, but the shirt stripes have changed colors, the teammates have stopped moving off the ball, and the trophies have never really appeared.

The Promise

Despite what you may have heard, Messi has won a World Cup.

The 2005 Under-20 World Cup is still the stuff of legend in Argentina. The team included six players who made the senior-team roster for the World Cup nine years later: Messi, Sergio Agüero, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando Gago, Ezequiel Garay, and Lucas Biglia. Taken together, that sextet has played for European giants Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Valencia, Lazio, and AC Milan, among others.

Messi didn’t immediately feature for the team because his coach thought he was too small. Concerned with Messi’s slight frame — even today he’s just 5-foot-7 — manager Pancho Ferraro left the most precocious member of a roster full of precocious teens on the bench for the start of their opener. Messi came on at halftime, but somehow Argentina lost the match, 1–0 … to the United States. Messi started the next game against Egypt and scored the opener in a 2–0 win. Then, in the final group-stage match against Germany, he set up the only goal with what would become one of his trademark gambetas.

In the round of 16, Messi scored in a 2–1 win over Colombia to advance to a marquee quarterfinal matchup against a Spain team that included future stars Cesc Fàbregas, David Silva, and Juanfran. With around 20 minutes left and the score tied at 1–1, Messi assisted on the winning goal and then sealed the result by turning the Spanish back line into stone.

The pattern continued during the next two rounds — Messi scored in a 2–1 win over Brazil in the semis, and then netted two penalties in a 2–1 win over Nigeria in the final — as Argentina sealed its deserved title and the guy who wasn’t big enough to play 90 minutes won the tournament’s outstanding player award. Just more than a month later, he would make his brief senior team debut.

Soon enough, Messi had established himself as a regular for Barcelona’s Champions League–winning senior team, and at just 18, he’d been selected as part of Argentina’s 23-man roster for the 2006 World Cup. Despite finding themselves in a group of death, featuring the Netherlands, Côte d’Ivoire, and Serbia-Montenegro, the Albiceleste went undefeated in the group stages and squeaked past Mexico in the round of 16, thanks to one of the all-time great goals, from Maxi Rodríguez.

Arguably the favorite to win it all at that point, Argentina then met the hosts, Germany, in the quarterfinals. Argentina took the lead in the 49th minute, but with the team up one with less than 20 minutes to play, manager José Pékerman infamously subbed off Juan Román Riquelme, the team’s languid playmaker, and replaced him with Esteban Cambiasso, a more defensive midfielder. The substitution spoke to a nervousness on Pékerman’s part. And, as the legendary English journalist Brian Glanville wrote in his recap of the tournament, the error was “compounded by failing, in that game, to make any use of the precociously incisive 19-year-old winger, Lionel Messi.” Argentina would concede an equalizer and then go on to lose in penalties. Pékerman resigned after the match.

People forget quarterfinal losses. They will, however, remember the second goal Argentina scored in a 6–0 group-stage victory over Serbia-Montenegro: a 26-pass move finished off by Cambiasso after a backheel from striker Hernán Crespo. From the bench, Messi watched his national team put together the kind of collective masterpiece that his club team would go on to replicate countless times over the ensuing decade. He then came on for the final 15 minutes against Serbia, setting up a Crespo goal and notching one of his own to cap off the day’s fireworks. It was Messi’s first goal at a World Cup. We’d have to wait eight more years for his next one.

Barcelona vs. Argentina

With Messi, there are so many potential first acts to the origin story. There’s the one about how, when he was 4, he went to watch his older brother’s soccer practice, but they were short a player, so the coach asked him to play. The first time the ball came to him, he didn’t touch it; the second time, he set off on a gambeta past three defenders. Then there’s the one about how 15 bombs were set off in Argentina on June 24, 1987, the day Messi was born, or how his parents got married eight days before the 1978 World Cup final, which Argentina won. There’s a tale about how he went on a trial at River Plate in Buenos Aires — the coaches refused to play him for most of the first practice game because (again) he was too small, but then he nutmegged two defenders in the final minutes and scored at least 10 goals in the next game. Or the one about how Barcelona became interested in signing the petite preteen because they saw video of him juggling an orange and a ping-pong ball. Or even the one about how they actually offered him a contract written on a napkin.

Messi joined Newell’s Old Boys in his hometown of Rosario just a few months before his seventh birthday; at the time, he was only 4 feet tall. By age 10, he’d grown just 2 more inches. A local doctor soon discovered that Messi’s body wasn’t producing a certain growth hormone, so his father, Jorge, began to pay for hormone treatments. It worked, and by age 12 his son was 4-foot-10, but the family didn’t want to keep paying for the treatments, and that eventually led to Barcelona.

After the Catalans showed interest, Jorge told the club they could sign his son and move him to Spain if they agreed to pay for Leo’s hormone treatment and if they found his dad a job. After some hemming and hawing, Barcelona relented, and Messi soon became the key piece of “the Machine of ’87,” the famed youth team that also included Fàbregas and Gerard Piqué. The hormone treatments stopped in 2001, and come 2002, Messi was still only 5-foot-4 and 120 pounds, which earned him the nickname “El Nano” or “the dwarf” at La Masia, the club’s youth academy. Despite his small stature, Messi scored 36 goals in 30 games during the 2002–03 season.

As Wilson recounted, Barcelona youth coach Alex García said that Messi was “a fusion of the individualism of Argentinian street soccer and the more team-oriented game that had been Barcelona’s philosophy.” There’s an alternate reality, too, where Messi has already won at least one World Cup and multiple continental championships — playing for Spain. In 2004, the Spanish federation attempted to get Messi to switch his allegiance to his adopted homeland, but he opted for the place where he was born.

Over the past decade, Barcelona has typically employed a patient, almost defensive style of possession play: death by a thousand sideways passes. Tiki-taka, as it’s called, is exhausting and suffocating to play against, but it would run the risk of becoming predictable — were it not for Messi, who seemingly has a gambeta for every problem that systematic ball movement can’t solve.

While Messi’s Argentinidad amplifies Barcelona, his Catalan education has often been cited as a reason the results with his country haven’t matched up with those of his club.

“Messi hasn’t been able to play his natural game for Argentina, a team that all too often has relied on that moment of genius from him to save it,” Andreas Campomar, author of Golazo! The Beautiful Game From the Aztecs to the World Cup: The Complete History of How Soccer Shaped Latin America, told me. “The collegiate system he finds at Barcelona just hasn’t been there at the international level.”

Messi functions best within a system that lets him play both inside of it and outside of it — but isn’t that true for, well, everyone? It’s just a fact of modern soccer that the infrastructure for almost every top-tier club team is better than it is with even the best national teams. There’s more money, there’s more time, and there’s more continuity.

At this point, Messi has spent a larger portion of his life in Spain than he has in Argentina, which has raised another question: Is he Argentine enough?

He’s wildly popular back home, but he hasn’t quite engendered the kind of fierce love that many Argentine fans used to have for former Manchester United and Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez. While Messi never played professionally in Argentina, Tevez came up through the Boca Juniors youth system and won the Copa Libertadores, South America’s club championship. Despite the recent predilection for tattoos, Messi’s image was always clean-cut. Meanwhile, Tevez came from a poor Buenos Aires neighborhood, and his face is scarred from burns he suffered after being scalded with boiling water as a child. As Campomar wrote in Golazo!: “Had [Messi] not left the country, he might have played for his favorite team, Newell’s, and formed the kind of suffocatingly close bonds with fans that caused less talented players like Tevez, who did have that blot on his record, to be more loved.”

With the Copa América in Argentina in 2011, the divide seemed to grow — until it didn’t. Tevez showed up to the tournament out of shape, and according to then-manager Sergio Batista, who led Argentina to Olympic gold in 2008, he’d made the team only because of pressure from Buenos Aires politicians. After a pair of draws against Bolivia and Colombia, Batista dropped Tevez from the lineup and employed a front four with Messi, Agüero, and Ángel Di María behind striker Gonzalo Higuaín. They beat Costa Rica 3–0 to advance to the quarterfinals against Uruguay. Despite a first-half red card to Uruguay’s Diego Pérez, the Argentines were only able to make it through regulation with the score tied at 1–1. The game went to a shootout, and Tevez, who’d come on for Agüero in the 83rd minute, missed the decisive penalty. If anything, the failure in 2011 suggested that the cultural fault lines had possibly been misdrawn.

“Messi demonstrates a modern, perfected Argentinidad,” Campomar said, “lacking the histrionics and violence of the past: an Argentinian-ness crafted in Europe.”

Before the One-Man Team

If there was a stretch when Argentina came close to consistently resembling Barcelona, it was in the years immediately after the disappointment of 2006.

Alfio Basile replaced Pékerman as manager and changed little about the team, except for one thing: Messi became a consistent starter.

And how could he not be? In the 2006–07 club season, he scored 17 goals in 36 games — none more famous than the 60-yard gambeta against Getafe in the semifinals of the Copa del Rey. To this day, the similarities between Messi’s run and Diego Maradona’s gallop in the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup against England remain straight-up eerie. Argentina has been looking for its next Maradona since the mid-’90s, and this goal was Messi calling off the search:

On the 2007 team, Messi played as a support striker behind Hernán Crespo, while Riquelme retained his spot as the no. 10. The traditional Argentina lineup was a 4–3–1–2, with a standard back line of two center backs flanked by a pair of fullbacks, one defensive midfielder, two box-to-box midfielders in front of him, and then an attacking midfielder sitting behind two strikers.

While Messi is the world’s best no. 10, the attacking midfield role often seemed like a waste of his diverse talents. At the club level, he perfected the role of the false nine — starting as the fixed point atop the attack, he could then drop deep and turn into a playmaker, make runs behind the defense, or drift wide and isolate whatever poor fullback he wanted to.

If Messi shattered games by fast-forwarding through them with his stuttering runs, Riquelme did his damage by pressing the pause button. He didn’t really defend and he didn’t really run, but he had an uncanny ability for finding enough space and time to play the kind of passes that exuded a precision that extended all the way down to the atomic level.

Today, the combined weight of Argentina’s possession, progression, creation, and goal-scoring seems to rest on Messi’s shoulders. But for a brief stretch, much of that fell to Riquelme. Taken together, their contrasting speeds made them near unstoppable. After winning their group, Argentina met Peru in the quarterfinals. It was tied at halftime, but ended 4–0 in favor of the Albiceleste. Wilson called it “an exhibition of the sort of soccer which Argentinian traditionalists dreamed” — a game in which the Messi-Riquelme combination was in full force:

In the semifinals, Argentina beat Mexico 3–0. The highlight was a goal that served as an early warning to what the rest of the world would soon learn: Messi didn’t need to dribble in order to destroy.

“Shall we pack up and leave?” Basile said after the game. “What more do we need? Should we continue after seeing that goal?”

Of course, they couldn’t, but maybe they ended up wishing they had. Despite dominating everything up to the final, Argentina lost to a rather unmemorable Brazil team, 3–0, after a series of defensive errors led to their demise. So much promise, unfulfilled once again.

A year later, Messi and Argentina finally won a title at one of the world’s largest sporting events. Unfortunately for his legacy, it was the Olympics and not the World Cup. And unfortunately for his legs, it was the last tournament he’d play with Riquelme.

The Disaster of El Diego

The Messi-Maradona relationship is at once totally fraught and completely one-sided. Messi rarely comments; Maradona always does. In 2005, Maradona supposedly called a teenage Messi to congratulate him on the U-20 championship. By 2008, Maradona was saying, “Messi plays for Messi. It’s Messi FC.”

After winning their first three matches in 2010 World Cup qualifying, Argentina began to stutter, going winless in their next five. They beat Uruguay, but then lost to Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile — their first defeat against La Roja since 1973. Basile resigned, and as Wilson writes, “Argentina reacted by doing what they tend to do when crisis approached and turned to Maradona.”

Although he’d won just three total games in his previous jobs managing Argentine clubs Mandiyú de Corrientes and Racing Club and despite the fact he hadn’t been a coach since 1995, this was El Diego. This was the man who led Argentina to its last World Cup glory both through sheer self-determination and his ability to channel a higher power with his fist. This was the greatest Argentine player of all time and possibly the greatest the world has ever seen.

Argentina found a way to qualify for South Africa 2010, but the appointment, ultimately, was a disaster. It can’t be emphasized enough: Argentina had the best player in the world, smack in the middle of his prime, and they paired him with a manager who was a national icon but who was also an unpredictable, embarrassingly underqualified coach with a history of being openly hostile toward said superstar.

In the 13 games leading up to the final match of qualifying, Maradona used 55 different players. In the mountains of La Paz, Argentina lost 6–1 to Bolivia — equaling its worst-ever competitive defeat. The team’s sheer talent allowed it to qualify, but the result wasn’t confirmed until a final-day win over Uruguay. After the match, Maradona told the press to “suck it and keep on sucking it.”

At the 2010 World Cup, the group stages were misleading. Despite Maradona’s baffling decision to play three, if not four, center backs at one time, Argentina won all three matches, scoring seven goals and conceding just one in the process. After dispatching Mexico in the round of 16, they faced a dynamic Germany side, featuring Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller in their inaugural World Cup appearances. The quick interchanges among the Germany front line overwhelmed Argentina’s creaky center backs. For the second tournament in a row, Argentina was eliminated by Germany in the quarterfinals. But this time, there was no sense of a missed opportunity; the Germans won 4–0 and terminated all hope. As Glanville wrote, “Maradona’s team and tactics looked simply naive.”

After a season in which he scored 47 goals, Messi didn’t score or set up a goal in South Africa. By then, he could still affect the game in different ways: He had 14 assists that season and three at the World Cup. He’d still win the Ballon d’Or that year, and he’d won it the year before, and he’d win it the two years after, too. Maradona, meanwhile, stepped down after the tournament. Since then, he’s had just two brief and unsuccessful managerial stints in the United Arab Emirates.

In Touched by God: How We Won the Mexico ’86 World Cup, a self-congratulatory micro-autobiography that was written by Maradona with the help of Argentine journalist Daniel Arcucci, he briefly touches on the 2010 World Cup. “The last guy responsible for our defeat that year was Lio Messi,” he writes. “In my opinion, he was the best player on our national team.”

As for the Germany game?

“If I had to play the match over again, I’d use the same strategy and play with the same team.”

How Has It Not Happened Yet?

There’s perhaps one thing that links all 20 World Cup winners across nearly a century of tournaments: They were lucky. In 2002, Brazil got to play the final against a Germany team without its best player, Michael Ballack. In 2006, Italy beat Australia in the round of 16 thanks to a dubious penalty, matched up against a weak Ukraine team in the quarters, and then saw France’s best player head-butt his playing career into oblivion in the waning moments of the final. And in 2010, Spain beat Paraguay in the quarterfinals after their opponents missed a penalty and overcame the Netherlands in the final after Arjen Robben missed a breakaway.

At this point, it’s remarkable that Messi’s Argentina haven’t lucked into at least one trophy.

They came into the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with high expectations. If there was going to be a Messi World Cup, this would be it. The class of ’05 were all in their primes, and the 27-year-old Messi was at his peak. They finished first in South American qualifying, losing just two out of 16 games, and according to Wilson, “had seemingly found in Alejandro Sabella a coach who was pragmatic enough and tough enough to ignore political considerations and the popularity of individuals to pick a team structure that worked.”

Through the group stages, it was Messi’s World Cup. After a somewhat disappointing first half in the opener against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Messi provided an encapsulation of what he’s now asked to do for his country: everything.

They won, 2–1, but the struggles continued against Iran in the next match. The Iranians were able to hold Argentina at arm’s length, preserving a scoreless draw through 90 minutes. Maradona was at the game, but supposedly left the stadium before the final whistle out of frustration. He missed Messi turning savior once again:

“Of course we have a genius,” Sabella said after the win. “He’s Argentinean. He’s in our team. Everyone would like to have one.” Argentina then won their final group-stage match, 3–2, against Nigeria, behind two more special Messi goals as they advanced to the round of 16 atop their group. “Messi is from Jupiter,” Nigeria manager Stephen Keshi said. “He is different.”

Next up: Switzerland, whose manager, Ottmar Hitzfeld, said before the game, “This can only be done if we’re all together, if we have three or four players around Messi, close to Messi.” It almost worked, as the match went to extra time scoreless, only for Messi to receive a pass, break through the midfield, and set Di María up for the winner:

But that was the end of the decisive moments. Higuaín scored the winner against Belgium in the next round, but Di María suffered a thigh injury that kept him out for the remainder of the tournament and removed some much-needed dynamism from Argentina’s midfield. The semifinal was a win in penalties after a scoreless draw with the Netherlands. Messi seemingly had begun to tire, and he would eventually admit that he didn’t feel fully like himself that summer. “It’s hard not to wonder what might have happened in the 2014 Final has Messi not been so palpably tired and well short of his refulgent best,” Glanville wrote.

Narratives, however, get formed on a knife’s edge, and none of that would have mattered had Argentina won the final against Germany.

And they very nearly did. Higuaín infamously missed a breakaway in the first half — the kind of slow-motion chance that’s so simple you convince yourself it was actually difficult. Argentina didn’t concede a shot on goal in regulation, but they still couldn’t find a way past keeper Manuel Neuer, and then in the 113th minute André Schürrle sneaked in a cross between two Argentine defenders, and Mario Götze, somehow, effortlessly controlled the ball with his chest and volleyed in the winner all in one motion. Four years later, neither Schürrle nor Götze were selected for this summer’s World Cup.

Despite Götze’s goal, the indelible moment from the 2014 World Cup was that of Messi being handed the Golden Ball, the award for the best player at the biggest sporting event on the planet, looking like he’d rather be in another universe.

The Last Hurrah

The failures have become so familiar they’re almost funny. In 2015, Argentina made the finals of the Copa America against hosts Chile. The beats roughly remained the same: Di María got hurt 30 minutes in, and Higuaín missed a golden opportunity, and Argentina lost in penalties after a scoreless regulation period.

A year later, in a special Copa America in the United States designed to celebrate 100 years of the tournament, Argentina won its first five games by a combined score of 18–2. They beat Chile 2–1 in the group stages, and met them again in the final. Argentina outshot their opponents 18–4, but you know how it goes by now: Higuaín missed a breakaway, the game ended 0–0, and Argentina lost on penalties.

Shortly after the game, Messi retired from international soccer, apparently fed up with the Argentine federation’s mismanagement of its players. But then he changed his mind a few weeks later, saying, “There were too many things in my head during the day of the last final and I seriously thought about letting it go, but I love my country and this jersey so much.”

At this point, it really does feel like it’s impossible that he’ll ever win a World Cup — that the natural order of things is for Messi to dominate the club game but come up an inch short whenever he wears the Argentina jersey. Every Messi performance serves as a new referendum on his career. The weight of history, up to now, has been crushing.

They all feel it, too. Messi has said that he would give back all of his Ballon d’Ors in exchange for one World Cup trophy. Current manager Jorge Sampaoli, who led Chile to the 2015 Copa America victory, said, “Messi has a revolver put to his head called the World Cup and if he doesn’t win it, he’s shot and killed.” Javier Mascherano, who’s been the team’s starting defensive midfielder since 2006, put it this way: “I hope as his teammates we can meet [Messi’s] standards.”

The current iteration of the team seems like it may suffer from the same disjointedness of the Maradona era. That’s not by choice; it’s just that the only top-level midfielders and defenders within the squad are slow and/or on the wrong side of 30. Sampaoli likes to press high up the field and ask his defenders to cover lots of ground, and so far, it doesn’t look like he has the proper personnel. Without Messi in qualifying, the team scored only six goals and won seven points in eight games. With him, they took 21 points from 10 games. Messi scored seven goals himself, three of which came in the 3–1 victory over Ecuador that clinched qualification on the last day.

Despite a front line that includes players from Manchester City, Juventus, and PSG, the team lives and dies by Messi. Paulo Dybala, who’s scored 52 goals in Serie A over the past three seasons, is one of the best young players in Europe, and yet he’s spoken about how for some reason he struggles when he’s on the field with Messi. Without him, the results have remained bleak: In March, they lost 6–1 to Spain in a friendly.

Except doesn’t the recent history of Argentina suggest that none of that matters? Whenever they’ve seemed destined to win, they’ve lost. So maybe now, with an aging and somewhat spectacularly lopsided roster, they’ll be the ones to make a run when they’re not supposed to. Maybe one more of Messi’s gambetas comes off in the right moment, maybe Higuaín finally finds the back of the net when it matters, maybe Willy Caballero makes that one extra save to win it all in penalties.

As he often did, the beloved Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano summed up Messi best when he said: “I like Messi because he doesn’t think he’s Messi.” But all too often, the weight of the Argentina shirt seems to remind him of who he is. Maybe this summer, he’ll finally forget.

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