Football | Analyzing Messi’s international career

Argentina crashed out of the Copa AmĂ©rica this week after a 2-0 loss to hosts Brazil.

Goals from Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino sealed Brazil’s place in the final, where they will face Peru, who stunned Chile in the other semi-final.

The semi-final defeat was more heartbreak for Argentina – who haven’t won the tournament since 1993 – and for their talisman.

There was plenty of drama in the game, with Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi both striking the woodwork for Argentina, who were also disgusted that the referee chose not to consult VAR despite two strong penalty calls.

Argentina have lodged an official complaint to CONMEBOL about the officiating in the game, but what’s done is done.

Messi stood forlorn on the pitch at full time as the Brazil players celebrated around him.

It has become a familiar sight in recent years at international level to see a despondent Messi – clad in the blue and white of his country – despondent as another opportunity to claim international silverware passes Argentina by.

A major international trophy at senior level remains elusive for the world’s greatest player.

This has often been the major blot on Messi’s record when people debate whether or not he is the greatest footballer of all time.

Detractors point to the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo has won the European Championship, and that Pele and Maradona both won the World Cup.

There is a narrative that the Barcelona star hasn’t hit the heights at international level that one would expect of one of the all-time greats.

But does this narrative tell the full story?

Teenage kicks

Messi did lead his country to glory at underage level.

In 2005, the then 18-year-old inspired Argentina to win the U20 World Cup in Holland.

The teenager was the standout player at a tournament littered with young stars, winning both the Golden Shoe and the Golden Ball as Argentina won the tournament for the fifth time in their history.

Argentina arrived in Holland with a hugely talented squad which contained Sergio Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta, Lucas Biglia, Fernando Gago, and Ezequiel Garay.

However, they lost their opening Group D match in the tournament to the USA, with Chad Randall Barrett scoring the only goal of the game.

Messi started the game on the bench, but was introduced at half-time, and played every minute of the tournament from that point forth.

The Barcelona star opened the scoring against Egypt in Argentina’s second game; arriving at the back post to finish into an empty net from six yards in the 47th minute. Zabaleta – who has since enjoyed an excellent career himself – sealed a 2-0 win in stoppage time with a deft finish over the onrushing goalkeeper after being played in down the right channel.

Argentina entered their final group game against Germany needing a victory to progress to the last 16.  The Germans had collected four points from their opening two matches against the USA and Egypt, and sat a point ahead of Argentina in the table entering the crucial clash. Neri Cardozo scored the only goal of the game two minutes before half time to send Argentina through in second place behind the USA, who topped the group on seven points.

Messi would go on to score in every knockout match, dazzling fans with his dribbling skills and vision in the process.

He drew Argentina level in the last 16 after Harrison Otálvaro had given Colombia the lead; riding a defender’s challenge to rifle home at the near post in the 58th minute. Julio Alberto Barroso then scored a stoppage time winner to send Messi and his teammates through to the quarter-finals.

A hugely talented Spain squad – boasting players including David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Raul Albiol and Fernando Llorente – awaited in the last eight.

Zabaleta opened the scoring for Francisco Ferraro’s team in the 19th minute, before Alberto Zapater drew Spain level shortly after the half hour mark. Gustavo Oberman gave Argentina the lead in the 71st minute, and Messi made it three just two minutes later.

He showed stunning control to bounce on a high ball and dance past two Spain defenders with just two touches, before calmly slotting the ball into the far bottom corner.

In the semi-final, Messi gave Argentina the lead in the seventh minute of their semi-final against rivals Brazil with a stunning strike. He cut inside from the right flank and unleashed an unstoppable strike into the top corner from 25 yards.

Zabaleta eventually notched another late winner after Renato had equalized for the Selecao, sending Argentina through to the final against Nigeria at Galgenwaard Stadion in Utrecht.

Nigeria had impressed on their road to the final, eliminating Ukraine, hosts the Netherlands, and Morocco in the knockout stages, having finished second in Group F behind Brazil.

Messi gave Argentina the lead from the penalty spot in the 43rd minute, having won the penalty himself. He casually rolled the ball into the bottom left corner, sending the Nigeria goalkeeper the wrong way.

Nigeria equalized through an excellent Chinedu Obasi diving header from a pinpoint Olubayu Adefemi cross in the 53rd minute.

Argentina were awarded a second penalty 15 minutes from time when Monday James fouled Aguero rashly in the box. Messi passed this spot kick into the bottom right corner this time, again sending the ‘keeper the wrong way.

La Albiceleste were crowned champions, and Messi had his first taste of international silverware.

“At the time, it seemed easy to win but it changed and cost more,”  he later reflected.

“I have this, the Olympic Games, but when I say I want to win something, I mean with the senior national team.”

Brilliance in Beijing

Messi also won gold with Argentina at the 2008 Olympic Games.

Argentina, captained by Juan Román Riquelme, were one of 15 nations who qualified for the tournament, and arrived in China determined to retain the title they had won four years earlier in Athens.

Participating countries were permitted to enter their U23 teams, but were allowed to supplement their squads with up to three players who surpassed the age limit. 

Now 21, Messi was once again the star performer for his country.

He scored two goals on Argentina’s road to the final; one against the Ivory Coast in the group stage, and another against Holland in the quarter-final.

Argentina topped Group A, taking maximum points against the Ivory Coast, Australia and Serbia.

They beat the Netherlands 2-1 after extra time in the quarter-final, with Messi scoring the opening goal. Wearing number 15, he dribbled around Dutch shot stopper Piet Velthuizen before finishing into an empty net in the 14th minute.

Otman Bakkal drew the Netherlands level in the 36th minute, tapping home after Javier Mascherano blocked Evander Sno’s shot.

Messi provided a beautiful pass to set Angel Di Maria free in the 105th minute of extra time, and the winger kept his cool to send Argentina through to the last four.

While Messi was once again impressive in the semi-final, it was Aguero who was the star of the show.

The Manchester City striker scored twice in six minutes after half time. First, he diverted Di Maria’s driven cross into the net via his shoulder, before finishing off Garay’s cross to double his country’s tally.

Ronaldinho almost gave Brazil a lifeline, but his free kick crashed back off the post, with Alexandre Pato’s rebound being correctly ruled out for offside.

Argentina put the game beyond doubt in the 74th minute after Aguero was tripped in the box having been picked out by Messi.  Riquelme hammered home the spot kick to seal an emphatic win for the reigning Olympic champions.

La Albiceleste progressed to the final at Nest National Stadium, where a familiar foe awaited. Nigeria had beaten Belgium 4-1 in the other semi-final, and it was another tight match.

Messi was once again superb, and provided an excellent assist for the only goal of the game. Early in the second half, he dribbled forward and released Di Maria with an inch-perfect pass, and Di Maria calmly chipped the ball over Ambruse Vanzekin.

Argentina held on to win 1-0 and retain their title.

Step up to senior

By the time of the Olympics, Messi had long since established himself as a key player for both Barcelona and the Argentina senior international team.

His stunning performances at the U20 World Cup led to his first senior call up by manager José Pékerman for a friendly against Hungary on 17 August 2005.

However, his senior debut was a complete and utter disaster.

Messi was introduced in the 63rd minute but was sent off just 30 seconds later. He retaliated after being fouled by Vilmos Vanczák, striking the Hungary international with his arm before being shown a straight red.

Things could only get better, and they certainly did.

Messi played in Argentina’s next three World Cup qualifiers against Paraguay, Peru – where he won a crucial penalty which secured victory – and Uruguay, and won his fifth cap in a friendly against Qatar in Doha in November ’05.

His first international goal arrived in a 3-2 friendly defeat against Croatia in Basel on March 1st, 2006. Messi was irresistible throughout the game, putting Argentina’s opener on a plate for Carlos Tevez – who arguably stole the goal from close range – before cutting in from the right wing and curling a low strike into the bottom corner.

By the time of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the teenager had scored one goal in seven caps, but was included in PĂ©kerman’s squad.

He was an unused substitute in Argentina’s first group game as the South American nation beat the Ivory Coast 2-1 in Group C.

In the second group game against Serbia and Montenegro, Messi came off the bench to become Argentina’s youngest ever representative at a World Cup. Argentina thumped their opponents 6-0, with Messi assisting the fourth and scoring the sixth to become the sixth-youngest goalscorer in the history of the tournament.

Messi showed great pace to race on to a through ball down the right channel and calmly slot the ball past the ‘keeper with his weaker right foot.

He started Argentina’s third Group C match against the Netherlands; a game which ended in a scoreless draw in Frankfurt.

Argentina topped the group, and drew Mexico in the last 16. The game took place on Messi’s 19th birthday, but the Rosario native was only introduced in the 84th minute with the score deadlocked at 1-1. He had a goal controversially ruled out for offside, but Maxi Rodriguez’ stunning volley in extra time sent Argentina through to the quarter-finals, where hosts Germany awaited PĂ©kerman’s team.

Controversially, Messi was an unused substitute against the Germans, with Argentina crashing out on penalties (losing 4-2) after a 1-1 draw in Berlin.

Messi’s next opportunity to win international silverware with the senior team came in the form of the 2007 Copa AmĂ©rica.

There was a new face in the dugout, as PĂ©kerman had been replaced by Alfio Basile after the World Cup.

Messi did not score in the group stages, but he did impress, and provided several assists as as Argentina topped Group C with maximum points.

He scored in Argentina’s 4-0 demolition of Peru in the quarter-finals, with Riquelme (two) and Mascherano also finding the net.

The young playmaker scored again in the 3-0 win over Mexico in the last four; his goal coming in between Gabriel Heinze’s opener and a Riquelme penalty.

However, Argentina were stunned by Brazil in the final, suffering an unexpected 3-0 defeat to their rivals.

Messi had reached his first final at senior level for his country, but it had ended in disappointing defeat.

He returned to Barcelona without the Copa AmĂ©rica trophy, but was named as the tournament’s best young player.

Messi and Maradona

Messi tasted success at the ’08 Olympics after the disappointment of the World Cup and Copa AmĂ©rica in 2006 and 2007 respectively, but there was another difficult period to come.

Diego Maradona – another candidate for the greatest footballer of all time – took over the Argentinian national team on October 29th, 2008 after Basile’s resignation.

Messi scored in Maradona’s first game at the helm; a facile 4-0 win over Venezuela, but failed to score in his next six international appearances.

He scored four goals in 18 appearances as Argentina just about qualified for the 2010 World Cup, with the country needing a 1-0 win over Uruguay in their final qualifier to progress to the tournament.

Messi had inherited the historic number 10 jersey – worn famously by Maradona himself – after Riquelme’s international retirement in 2009.

The diminutive genius, now 23, had scored 13 goals in 46 caps before touching down in South Africa for his second tilt at World Cup glory.

Heinze scored the only goal of the game as Argentina beat Nigeria 1-0 in their first Group B game, and Gonzalo Higuain sealed a hat-trick in La Albiceleste’s 4-1 win over South Korea in their second match, with Messi having a hand in all four goals.

MartĂ­n Demichelis and MartĂ­n Palermo grabbed the goals in a 2-0 win against Greece in Argentina’s final group game.

Messi set up Tevez for Argentina’s first goal in a routine 3-1 win over Mexico in the last 16, with familiar foes Germany once again awaiting in the quarter-final.

Germany hammered Argentina 4-0 in Cape Town, sending the shell-shocked South Americans home with a whimper.

Captain Fantastic 

Maradona was replaced by Sergio Batista, but trophies remained elusive.

Argentina hosted the 2011 Copa AmĂ©rica, but were eliminated by eventual winners Uruguay in the quarter-final on penalties.

Messi struggled to reproduce his scintillating form at club level, exiting the tournament with two assists and zero goals.

Alejandro Sabella took over from Batista following the tournament, and made Messi his captain at the age of 24.

He ended his international goal drought – which lasted over two years – with a goal against Chile in October ’11, and scored his first international hat-trick in a friendly against Switzerland two months later.

Messi scored nine goals in five games that month, including another hat-trick against Brazil in East Rutherford.

He ended the calendar year of 2012 with 12 goals, equaling Gabriel Batistuta’s record of goals in a single year.

Sabella’s tactics brought out the best in Argentina’s talisman, with Messi netting an astonishing 25 goals in his first 32 appearances under the manager.

He scored 10 goals in 14 qualifying games as Argentina booked their place at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

At the tournament itself, he scored what proved to be the winner against Bosnia and Herzegovina in a 2-1 win in Argentina’s first Group F match.

Messi then scored a stunning stoppage winner to seal a 1-0 win over Iran in Argentina’s second group game.

He cut inside on to his left foot in trademark style and bent a sumptuous strike into the far corner to seal a dramatic late victory for the South American country.

The captain then scored twice in Argentina’s thrilling 3-2 win over Nigeria (yep, them again) in the final Group F match, with Argentina topping the group on nine points.

Di Maria netted the only goal of the game in extra time against Switzerland in the last 16, with Messi setting up the decisive goal, and Higuain’s early strike was enough to secure a 1-0 win over Belgium in the quarter-final.

Argentina progressed to the final after beating the Netherlands on penalties (Messi scored his) following a scoreless draw after extra time.

Germany – who had beaten Messi’s country in the previous two World Cups – also made it through to the final after obliterating Brazil 7-1 in a remarkable semi-final.


The Final Countdown

Higuain blew a huge first half chance for Argentina; scuffing his strike well wide after being put through one-on-one by a poor German defensive header, and the striker later had a goal ruled out for offside. At the other end, Benedikt Höwedes sent a header crashing off the post from a Germany corner, but it remained scoreless at the interval.

Messi flashed an excellent opportunity wide of the far post after being played through by Lucas Biglia.

The game went to extra time, and both sides had chances to open the scoring.

Andre Schurrle was blocked down at one end, before Rodrigo Palacio squandered an excellent chance for Argentina.

Substitute Mario Gotze scored the only goal of the game in the 113th minute, expertly chesting down Schurrle’s clever cross before firing the ball past Sergio Romero to win the World Cup for Germany.

Messi had a half chance to nick an equalizer from a late free kick, but his set piece flew harmlessly over the bar.

The full time whistle heralded wild celebrations in the German camp, and familiar international heartbreak for Messi and his teammates.

He ended his third World Cup still searching for a maiden knockout goal, but received the Golden Ball for his performances.

The decision to name him the tournament’s best player raises some eyebrows at the time, but his stats make for impressive reading.

He scored four goals, provided one assist, created more chances than any other player, completed the most dribbles, and played more through balls than any other man in the tournament.

Argentina suffered more heartbreak in the 2015 Copa América.

Messi scored one goal (a penalty) on the way to the final, earning his 100th cap against Uruguay in Argentina’s final group game.

He dispatched his penalty calmly as Argentina eliminated Colombia on penalties in the quarter-finals, and was at his dazzling best in the 6-1 semi-final win over Paraguay, laying on three assists for his teammates.

The final against Chile also went to a shootout after a scoreless draw, but Messi was the only Argentinian to score his penalty as the Chileans won 4-1 on penalties.

The 2016 Copa AmĂ©rica Centenario was a case of dĂ©ja vu for Messi and company.

Messi had entered the tournament as a major injury doubt, but was superb after sitting out Argentina’s first group game.

He plundered a 19-minute hat-trick against Panama in the second game. In the third group game against Venezuela, he scored once and assisted twice in a 4-1 win. The goal against Venezuela drew Messi level with all-time Argentinian top-scorer Gabriel Batistuta on 54 goals.

Messi smashed that record days later, scoring another goal and providing two more assists in his country’s emphatic 4-0 win over hosts the USA in the semi-final.

Argentina once again reached the final, and once again lost to Chile on penalties following a scoreless stalemate. This time, however, Messi missed his penalty from 12 yards.

Defeat in a third major final appeared to be too much to bear for Messi, who announced his international retirement after the shootout.

“My generation can’t compare him to Maradona that’s for my generation, because of what Maradona did for Argentine football,” victorious Chile manager Juan Antonio Pizzi declared after the match.

“But I think the best player ever played today here in the United States.”

Thankfully, Messi quickly reversed his retirement decision, much to the delight of the entire nation of Argentina.

Unsurprisingly, he played a key role in his country’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

With Argentina needing a victory in their final qualifier to progress to Russia, and trailing Ecuador 1-0 in Quito, Messi saved the day with a superb hat-trick to rescue Argentina from the brink.

His trilogy of goals made him the joint all-time leading scorer in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers with 21 goals, alongside Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez.

Jorge Sampaoli was the manager in the dugout at last summer’s World Cup; Messi’s fourth appearance at the tournament.

Argentina were a mess defensively, however, and struggled from the outset in Russia. The Albiceleste produced an uninspiring 1-1 draw with Iceland in their opening group game, before being crushed 3-0 by eventual finalists Croatia.

Messi scored a beautiful goal to give Argentina the lead against Nigeria in their final must-win group game, and a dramatic late winner from Marcos Rojo sealed their place in the knockout stages after Victor Moses had drawn the African nation level.

Eventual champions France eliminated Argentina in the last 16, coming out on top of a pulsating six-goal thriller.

Didier Deschamps’ men won 4-2 in one of the games of the tournament.

Messi had tasted World Cup defeat yet again, and left Russia still searching for his first knockout goal, though he did provide an assist for Aguero against the French.

Conclusion

The Copa AmĂ©rica defeat to Brazil this week is another bitter blow to Messi’s international aspirations.

He will be 34 when the 2022 World Cup in Qatar comes around. Will he still be an influential player? Will he persist with international football until then?

His comments following the disappointing defeat to Brazil this week suggest he has no intentions of calling it a day just yet.

“If I can still help in any way, I will continue to do so. I feel really good in this group,” he said.

Time is running out for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner to win top international honours, but should that affect his legacy?

This is a player who was won an extraordinary amount of trophies at club level, and he has produced the decisive moments in so many big matches over the years.

Statistically, his international record is also fantastic.

Messi is comfortably Argentina’s all-time top goalscorer, notching 68 goals thus far in 135 appearances.

He has also recorded 40 international assists to date, which takes his total goal involvement to 104 goals for his country.

21 of these goals have come in just 17 World Cup qualification matches, and he has scored nine goals in seven Copa America appearances.

The 32-year-old has scored six goals and provided five assists in 19 World Cup appearances. 11 goal involvements may not seem massive for a player of his calibre, but his Argentina team have never been the best team in any of the four World Cups he has played in.

He remains the youngest player to have reached 100 caps in CONMEBOL history, and the first Argentina player to score against the other 9 CONEMBOL countries.

Messi has always been held to impossibly high standards, but he remains human.

Maradona may have carried Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, but Messi’s legacy shouldn’t be diminished for failing to win the holy grail of international football.

He has scored more goals for his country than any other player, and his achievements at club level are virtually unrivaled.