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The ball comes to Lionel Messi in midfield. He returns it with a disdainful flick of the foot that says: I can’t do anything with this. I don’t want it. Take it back. And then he sighs and walks off in the opposite direction. Surprised, and a little abashed, Guido Rodríguez gathers the ball and looks around for somebody else to pass it to.
Perhaps it’s because Messi gives so few interviews – and tends to say so little in the interviews he gives – that over time you start to delude yourself, in a weird anthropomorphic way, that you can glimpse some sort of profound human insight in his football. That on some level, his actions on a pitch are his way of talking to us. That misplaced pass was actually a form of oblique protest towards the Barcelona board over his continuing contract stand-off. That fist-pump celebration was actually an act of solidarity with striking Rosario dock workers. That attempted through ball is his way of telling us that life is precious but hope is fragile. And so on.
All nonsense; probably. And yet by the same token, if you’re trying to “read” footballers you could probably do a lot worse than to start with Messi. Even at his advanced age, is there a more purely expressive footballer in the world right now? A footballer with a richer or more varied vocabulary? Perhaps it’s no surprise that when you can perform something to the proficiency and complexity of language, a lot of people will confuse it with talking.
Even by his own standards, Messi has been enjoying a particularly expressive Copa América so far. Barely a week into the tournament, we have already seen a sublime free-kick from distance in Argentina’s draw against Chile, a crucial assist for Rodríguez in the 1-0 win over Uruguay. In addition to which there have been lots of wounded looks, lots of mini-tantrums, lots of exasperated pointing to teammates, as if to say: There. That’s where I want the ball. That spot. It’s simple. You bend it over the defender, with the laces, just a little backspin, and … never mind, I’ll get it myself.
It’s important to note that this even this more animated, visible Messi is still a curiously remote figure: certainly when you compare him to many of his contemporaries. One of the striking aspects of the current international scene is the number of teams who are essentially built around the charismatic energy of a single legendary player. There is an almost cartoonish heroism in the way Robert Lewandowski charges around the pitch for Poland, trying to elevate his Championship-level teammates through sheer force of will. You see it too with Wales and Gareth Bale, even to a lesser extent with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. It’s a team game, of course. But also, it sort of isn’t.
Messi, for his part, has never really demanded this sort of role for himself. Even in his peak years, he would warn against the dangers of moulding a whole team around a single player. Now, you can see it in the way he angrily returns the ball when he doesn’t want it, the way he spends large parts of a game actively trying to disappear: slipping from view, biding his time, preserving his energy. And yet often Argentina will go through periods where they keep passing the ball to Messi, and keep getting it back, an exchange that seems to tell the whole story of modern Argentinian football in a fleeting moment.
This week Messi turns 34. Next week, fitness permitting, he will win his 148th cap and break Javier Mascherano’s record, despite twice announcing his retirement and then changing his mind. He remains as sublime a player as he ever was, but it’s increasingly clear these days that he can’t do it all, even if he wanted to. This is his 11th tilt at winning a major international tournament, and there are still people out there who will tell you that until his succeeds his greatness will remain somehow incomplete.
Never mind the fact that Messi would have won a World Cup and two Copa Americas by now if Gonzalo Higuain knew how to convert an open goal. On some level, the ongoing quest for an international trophy speaks to a wider existential angst in Argentinian football, one that sees in Messi’s advancing age not only his own ticking clock, but the nation’s as a whole.
Most of the golden generation of the 2010s have now either departed the scene or are in gentle decline. In the meantime, the abundant pipeline of talent that once flowed from Argentina to the biggest clubs in Europe has run alarmingly dry. Only five Argentinians aged 25 or under featured in this season’s Champions League. Only one - Cristian Romero at Atalanta – made it as far as the last-16. And though there is still plenty of potential in the likes of Lautaro Martínez, Ángel Correa, Giovani Lo Celso, if you’re an Argentina fan right now it’s hard not to wonder whether when Messi finally retires, he takes your best chance of glory with him.
“Geniuses are repeat offenders, even with a cane,” the great Jorge Valdano said in a recent interview with La Nacion. And even in his waspish autumn years, surrounded by increasingly inferior players, stripped of home advantage, in what may well be his last dance, there is still something there: a flicker of a vision of a light that has never quite gone out. From this distance, with our untrained eye, it looks a lot like yearning.