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Heading into the 2018 World Cup, no player had more pressure facing him than Argentina's Lionel Messi.
For all the success Messi has had as one of the greatest players ever to take the pitch, international success has always eluded him.
Two matches and two disappointing results into the group stage of this year's tournament, Messi is living through a waking nightmare.
Lionel Messi is living through a waking nightmare.
Messi and his countrymen came into the World Cup with high hopes, but after two disastrous results in the group stage, the 2014 runners-up are on the brink of elimination. And between Messi's absurd talents on the pitch, his tenuous relationship with his national team, and the weight of being among the most talented athletes in the world, it's impossible not to look to him with empathy and awe.
Messi has been, with little argument from even his greatest detractors, one of the top two footballers on the planet for the past decade (along with Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo). Through his wizardry on the field, he's brought countless trophies to FC Barcelona, scoring incessantly and building a highlight reel that other players would kill for even a fraction.
But even amid his dominance through La Liga and the Champions League and the Copa del Rey with Barcelona, success for his country has always eluded him. Aside from a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics — a competition football fans would be quick to dismiss — Messi's international career with Argentina has been filled with disappointment, his team coming close to glory time and again but always falling just short of reaching the mountaintop.
Messi carried his country to the final of the 2014 World Cup, only to fall to Germany in extra time. Four years before that, Argentina was blown out by the Germans, 4-0, in the quarterfinals. At Copa América, the tournament for South American countries, the results are even more heartbreaking — Argentina lost in the final in three of the past four times the tournament was played and fell to Uruguay, the eventual champion, on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the fourth.
It'd be tough for anyone to escape the shadow of Diego Maradona without a trophy for his country, no matter how great the talent.
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Messi's complicated relationship with the Argentine national team goes beyond mere results. After being found to have a growth-hormone deficiency, Messi left his home country at just 13 years old to join Barcelona, which had agreed to pay for treatment. While his rise through the footballing world was meteoric, when Messi fell short for his country people would cite his life spent in Europe and claimed that he "isn't Argentine enough."
After the Copa América Centenario final in 2016, in which Argentina lost to Chile on penalty kicks with Messi missing his shot from the spot, he called it quits, announcing his retirement from international football. But after a few days to cool off from the disappointment, Messi reconsidered and suited up once again for Argentina to help the team qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
And now we're here, in Russia in 2018.
Four years removed from a second-place finish that could have easily changed the course of Messi's legacy, Argentina is on the brink of not even escaping the group stage after a disappointing draw against Iceland and a dismantling at the hands of Croatia.
At the same time, Messi's lifelong rival Cristiano Ronaldo has single-handedly willed Portugal to important results in a style many wish and expect of Messi. Ronaldo, who exorcised his own demons of international failure with a win at Euro 2016, is scoring hat tricks with joy as he carries a nation on his shoulders. All Messi can do is watch and wonder whether his burden will ever lighten.
Sports exist as a ceaseless and straightforward metaphor. We watch to see the drama of existence play out on a stage with relatively little actually at stake, trading in the visceral reality of life and death for the relatively safe highs and lows of championships and elimination. And right now, Messi is living a Shakespearean tragedy so on the nose that Hollywood producers would demand a rewrite.
Attempting to carry a nation that struggles to embrace him as its own, a man of supernatural ability who has never faced a challenge he couldn't beat with his creativity, athleticism, and grace shows his mortality.
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Anyone who has followed Argentina through this tournament knows it'd be wrong to put the blame squarely on Messi's shoulders. Despite its small population, Iceland has shown it can compete with the best teams in soccer before, and Argentina's breakdown against Croatia had more to do with goalkeeping and defensive mishaps than anything with the team captain.
Without Messi, it's likely that Argentina would have failed to even qualify for the World Cup — on the final day of Conmebol qualifying, it was Messi who scored a hat trick after his side conceded a 1-0 lead in the first minute of a must-win game to ensure his team made it into the World Cup field of 32.
But that's not how these stories are written. It is precisely those moments that make us believe Messi can pull his team from the brink to the point that we unfairly expect it of him. Even now, with his back against the wall and needing help from Nigeria to escape the group stage, there is a sense among those who embrace him that if anyone can do it, it's Messi.
No matter how it turns out, the drama will be intense, and impossible to look away from.
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