Copa América Final: Lionel Messi Tries to Slay His Ghosts

His retort, and Argentina’s, would doubtless be that this is no time for half measures. There is not a single player on Argentina’s squad who has seen it win a World Cup. A majority have never experienced their country’s lifting of the Copa América trophy, which Argentina has not won since 1993.

It has made finals, of course, and plenty of them: losing to Brazil in the Copa in 2004 and 2007, and to Chile in 2015 and 2016. Given how often the tournament is played — once every six months or so, it seems — and given Argentina’s resources, a generation without victory, and Argentina’s gradual decline from world power to habitual runner-up, is a source of stinging embarrassment.

For Messi, though, it is more personal. Twice in recent years he has considered stepping away from the national team, effectively declaring it to be more trouble than it is worth: once after losing the 2016 Copa América final and again, more definitively, in the aftermath of Argentina’s early elimination from the 2018 World Cup.

Outside Argentina, he would have been forgiven for doing so. For years, the country’s soccer federation seemed to have little or no idea of how to build a suitable stage for the finest player, certainly of his generation and possibly of any. Messi was expected to carry a whole nation on his back; when he stumbled under the weight, it was because he was too weak, not the load too heavy.

Besides, on a personal level, he did not need international success. Soccer has moved on from the era when greatness was forged in the white heat of World Cups and continental championships. Increasingly, it is the Champions League that defines not just a player’s status, but also his legacy. It was there that Messi, winner of four titles with Barcelona, had made himself immortal.

And still he could not walk away. Messi came back after 2016 and he came back after 2018 and he is there, now, at 34, officially a free agent after his contract at Barcelona expired. Even as the remaining years of his career are suddenly mired in uncertainty — the club’s precarious financial position makes it appear as if it may not, in actual fact, be able to re-sign him — Messi is doing what he has had to do for a decade and a half: pulling Argentina along in his wake.