MOSCOW -- Is this the last we'll see of Lionel Messi on football's biggest stage, the World Cup? Argentina are out, and with them go a seemingly demoralized, I'd-rather-be-anywhere-than-Russia Lionel Messi. True, he did what he could in the round of 16 with two assists, including a beauty that lead to Kun Aguero's goal. But it wasn't enough. Not even close.
And so the countdown begins. Lionel Messi will be 35 years and 208 days old on Dec. 18, 2022, the day he theoretically gets his next crack at winning the World Cup. Only three players older than that have started a World Cup final and won: Nilton Santos in 1962, Dino Zoff in 1982 and Miroslav Klose in 2014.
That means it has been done before. Sure, it's not an easy thing to do. But this is Messi we're talking about. There's difficult and then there's Messi with the five Ballon d'Ors, the four Champions Leagues and the 552 goals for Barcelona.
Think that's easy?
And yet as great as those achievements were, they were different. Zoff, of course, was a goalkeeper: different rules apply to them. Nilton Santos was the veteran on an uber-dominant Brazil that included the likes of Didi, Zito, Garrincha, Djalma Santos and, until his injury, Pele. Klose started three games during Germany's run, scoring one goal. They had far better supporting casts than what Messi is likely to have in 2022.
More importantly, perhaps, while they were valued team members who made important contributions, these weren't key men. In other words, these weren't heroes who carried their team to glory
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But that's exactly what Messi has been, what Messi is and what Messi likely will be, although perhaps not on December 18, 2022. Biology isn't an opinion or a state of mind. We age: our bodies degrade and with them, our ability to make them do what we want.
Some can slow the process, whether because they are freaks of nature or whether because they are maniacal in the care they take of their bodies -- a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, 33, comes to mind -- or whether because they are just fortunate. But nobody can halt it. Not even Messi.
With this elimination comes the knowledge that he won't win the World Cup as a protagonist. He won't follow in the path of Pele and Diego Maradona. (And because the debate is inevitable to some, no, Cristiano Ronaldo may not do it either. But he's in a different category merely by the fact that he's Portuguese and Portugal is not a superpower on the level of Brazil or Argentina. Ronaldo also led Portugal to Euro glory.).
Does Messi's failure at the 2018 World Cup matter to the GOAT debate?
Realistically, it shouldn't. It's a foolish criteria, laid out by those who don't seem to understand chance and probability and what a single individual can and cannot control. Zinedine Zidane won a World Cup in 1998 because his teammates beat Paraguay in extra-time without him and because they beat Italy on penalty kicks. He lost a final in 2006 because, again, without him, they lost to Italy on penalty kicks.
Messi can replay the 2014 final against Germany in his head and no doubt come up with dozens of moments where things could have gone differently and broken his way, many of them outside his control: the most obvious being Gonzalo Higuain's missed chance.
Yet football doesn't work that way. It is a team sport. You can judge individuals on individual achievements, but doing so on collective achievements is fraught with peril and imprecision.
Maybe, on his way home from Russia, Messi is thinking of his four World Cups and what could have been different. In 2006, he was a teenager, with a mere 11 league starts to his name. He made three appearances, two as a substitute and scored a goal. Roberto Abbondanzieri's injury in goal and Jose Pekerman's decision to send on Julio Cruz instead of Messi meant he played no part in the quarterfinals against Germany. The spot kick defeat meant he went home.
South Africa 2010 was marked by Maradona's follies as Argentina coach. Messi played every minute of every game, failing to score (but assisting plenty in a deeper playmaking role) and crashed out again in the quarterfinals, again to Germany.
Then there was Brazil 2014. By now, he had the captain's armband and despite arriving at the World Cup carrying an injury, loaded the Albiceleste on his back through the group stage and into the final, where they succumbed to -- who else? -- Germany. Of little consolation, Messi was awarded the Golden Ball for best player in the tournament.
Now this World Cup. Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli has replicated the chaos of the 2010 edition, with the minor difference that he isn't an icon like Maradona, and therefore every mistake has been amplified and magnified. Maybe Sampaoli will be the scapegoat -- like Maradona was in 2010, albeit after the fact -- or maybe we'll simply accept that this isn't a great generation of Argentine players.
Yet deep down Messi must know -- in the way that footballers who are honest with themselves know -- that his missed penalty against Iceland and his nonexistent performance against Croatia are the reason Nigeria became a must-win game. Sampaoli has his responsibilities, sure, but so does the guy who proves to be human when for the longest time he performed as if superhuman. Argentina managed to beat Nigeria dramatically, 2-1, with a goal from Messi. There was hope, until France -- and Kylian Mbappe, the World Cup's new sensation -- had different ideas.
The inquest will begin, with arguments on both sides. Reaching four major finals -- losing two of them on penalties and one in extra-time -- won't convince those who say he ought to have done more for his country. In his heart -- because athletes on his level are often, at least privately, their own harshest critics - Messi may second-guess himself, particularly in this tournament.
When he was younger, his loyalty -- even his patriotism -- was called into question by some in Argentina. That's what happens when you leave at 13 and achieve more with your club than with your country.
Questioning Messi's love for his nation is, of course, silly, particularly when you consider the times he played hurt and the times he took a public stand (witness his brief retirement in protest against the chaos at the Argentina FA after the 2016 Copa America). Yet that, too, is part of the narrative.
If there is one easy conclusion to make it's this: winning when you're part of a perennially well-resourced and organized framework like he enjoys at Barcelona is a whole heck of a lot easier. It's not just about getting your tactical instructions from Pep Guardiola rather than Maradona or the fact that if you need a central midfielder you can buy an Ivan Rakitic rather than being forced to make do with a Lucas Biglia.
It's the fact that, maybe more than most, chaos and instability don't suit him.
Think back to what was, arguably, Messi's worst performance before the Croatia match: the Champions League second leg against Roma in April, when Barcelona contrived to squander a 4-1 first leg lead and lose 3-0. There, too, you can shift blame to the manager for his tactics, praise the opposition for raising their game, celebrate the magical unpredictability of the sport. But there is no denying a woeful, absent, listless performance from Messi, either.
It happens, many said. He's entitled a day off. The problem is that as you age, nights like Rome and Nizhny Novgorod risk becoming more frequent.
That's time for you. Rocky Balboa was right: Time is undefeated.
Messi can't make time stop for him. But maybe, just maybe, he can make it slow down.
Maybe he can take a mulligan and have another crack in 2022. For his own benefit, for those who love to watch him play and to shut up all those who judged a man by medals won in July, rather than by actions performed over a lifetime.