Copa America Last Chance For Messi To Reach God-Status

June 12, 2019

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There are over 275,000 registered members of ‘Iglesia Maradoniana’ – the Church of Maradona – but the real number of disciples of the great man, the man they quite literally refer to as God in Argentina, is surely much higher. If there is a face at the top Argentinean football’s altar, it is Diego Maradona’s. Even to this day.

Of course, in the eyes of many, the majority even, Maradona has over the past decade or so been usurped as the greatest footballer the country has ever produced. In fact, Lionel Messi has usurped everyone as the greatest footballer any country has ever produced, setting a new precedent at the top of the sport.

Not in the minds of many of his countrymen, though. Argentinean fans, generally, are not interested in Messi’s countless club accolades, in all the Champions League winner’s medals and Ballon d’Ors. They ask – what has he done for his country? In terms of tangible silverware, the answer, besides a gold medal won at the 2008 Olympics is… nothing.

Much has been made of Messi’s difficult relationship with his own national team and his own country. The 31-year-old retired from international duty following the 2016 Copa America, where he lost his third successive major tournament final. “I tried my hardest,” he said in an attempt to explain his decision.

It has been four finals. I want more than anyone to win a title with the national team, but unfortunately it did not happen. I think this is best for everyone, firstly for me and for a lot of people that wish this. The team has ended for me, a decision made.” Messi, of course, returned eventually, but then reconsidered his international future again after last summer’s World Cup, with the forward taking an extended break from playing for Argentina.

Messi will be 35 by the time the 2022 World Cup in Qatar rolls around. It might be somewhat foolish to make predictions of the great man’s demise, but at that age it would be reasonable to presume his powers will be on the wane. Messi, even as the best player to have ever played the sport, might not be able to carry Argentina on his shoulders by that point.

This is why this summer’s Copa America carries even more significance than usual for Messi. This could be Messi’s last chance to win over his own country. His last chance to answer the one question that continues to, rightly or wrongly, hang over him.

Argentina really should have won a major trophy with Messi before now. There are few teams in international football that boast as many world class superstars as La Albiceleste. Their squad might not be as stacked as it was a few years ago, when the likes of Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez were at their peak, but Argentina will be among the favourites for the 2019 Copa America.

Group B will provide Lionel Scaloni with some early testers, with Argentina’s progression into the knockout rounds far from assured. Colombia, Paraguay and Qatar, the Asian champions invited to the Copa America for the first time, will all fancy their chances of claiming a scalp. Messi himself has failed to score in nine of his last 12 international matches over the past two years.

This certainly isn’t Messi’s best chance of an international honour, but it’s the one he must take. To the global audience, his lack of a title with Argentina means little. After all, the Champions League is where great players are defined and Messi has proven himself at that level as the best of his generation.

At home, however, Messi very much still has a point to prove. Having lived abroad from the age of 13, his compatriots call him Spanish. It’s meant as something of an insult, as if his failure to bring success to La Albiceleste is a black mark on his patriotism. All this, of course, is nonsense, but this is the paradigm he faces. With success this summer, Messi might edge closer to one day inspiring a church of his own. Another failure, however, could ensure he is never worshipped like the man they call God.

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Author: Graham Ruthven

Graham Ruthven is a football writer and broadcaster based in Glasgow, Scotland. He was written for the New York Times, the Guardian, Eurosport, Bleacher Report, Four Four Two, The Scotsman and others. He is also a football shirt aficionado and still maintains to this day that Dennis Bergkamp didn’t mean it

Twitter @grahamruthven

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