Has a shirt ever weighed as heavily as Argentina’s does on Lionel Messi?

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This article was published 22/6/2019 (1107 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Has a shirt ever weighed as heavily as Argentina’s does on Lionel Messi?

Arguably the best footballer in history, the Barcelona maestro must secretly wish he had decided, back in 2003 when Spain invited him to be part of their squad for the Under-17 World Cup, to opt for the threads of La Roja instead of those of La Albiceleste — stitching that has become synonymous with his only failing in a sport he has otherwise dominated for a generation: to lead the country of his birth to a first major title since 1993.

That fateful decision, even if it was the right one, seemed at the time a sort of repayment to Argentina, which Messi had left for the Catalan capital in order to strengthen his body, train at the world’s top academy and prepare for his inevitable ascension to superstardom. A promising cohort of young international teammates suggested the inevitability of World Cup and Copa America success as well — a notion supported by under-20 World Cup triumphs in 2005 and 2007, a promising senior World Cup in 2006 and Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008.

How long ago those victories now seem, false dawns obscuring the Sun of May, the Sol de Mayo of the nation’s flag.

They came so close in 2014, losing the World Cup final in extra time to Germany. A year later, they were bested by Chile on penalties in the final of the Copa America. A year after that, they fell on spot-kicks to Chile once again, a defeat following which Messi announced his international retirement. He returned for 2018 World Cup qualifying, only to go out in the Round of 16 in Russia.

Now, at the ongoing Copa America in Brazil, the Albiceleste shirt wears those defeats, a weight of anxiety that seems to slow every buildup and hamper every attack. Argentina opened the tournament with a dismal 2-0 loss to Colombia. On Wednesday, they required a fortunate penalty to muster a 1-1 draw with Paraguay. They’ll conclude their Group B schedule against tournament invitees Qatar on Sunday, and given recent performances and the general mood of the group, they can’t even take that encounter — a match they should always be winning — for granted.

One of the few sureties ahead of kickoff is that Messi, the captain, will start. Interim manager Lionel Scaloni, who hadn’t overseen a senior match until this past November, has yet to duplicate a lineup through seven matches, only four of which he’s won. Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero, both of whom began on the bench against Paraguay, could well be recalled, especially given Scaloni’s spat with Lautaro Martinez. Inexplicably, Paulo Dybala will likely once again fail to see a single minute of action.

If they can beat Qatar, who surprised Paraguay with a come-from-behind 2-2 draw on Sunday, Argentina could still finish second in their section. That would set up a possible quarterfinal with Peru, after which Brazil would probably be waiting in the last four.

Perhaps the only thing working in Argentina’s favour at this Copa America is that none of the competition’s other teams appear particularly dominant. Only Colombia has a chance to finish the group stage with a 100 per cent record (Chile, after humbling Japan 4-0, played Friday evening). Uruguay had to fight back twice to earn a draw with Japan and Brazil was monotonous the last time out against Venezuela, drawing 0-0.

Of course, Messi could still produce something special, like he did on the final day of 2018 World Cup qualifying, when Argentina required a win at altitude in Quito and he delivered a hat trick in a 3-1 triumph. The very best players can never be counted out, although the 31-year-old doesn’t even seem to believe in his own otherworldly abilities when covered in the blue and white strip.

Messi’s long, agonizing association with Argentina’s national team appears headed for a different inevitability than that so tantalizingly promised 16 years ago. It’s not going up in flames so much as sinking into the abyss, weighed down by a shirt he may wear a final time on Sunday.

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