FIFTEEN years ago, on August 17th 2005, Lionel Messi made his senior debut for Argentina. It was not a happy occasion.
The 18 year old came off the bench in the second half of a friendly away to Hungary.
He was instantly in the action, picking up possession and running with the ball tied to his left foot.
But he could only give a brief glimpse of his extraordinary promise. As he broke through once more, a defender tried to stop his progress by hanging on to him.
Trying to break free Messi swung an arm behind him, the defender went down and – absurdly – the referee reached for his red card. Messi’s first appearance for his country lasted less than five minutes.
Perhaps it prepared him for the frustrations to come. Messi has scored more goals for Argentina than anyone else, and will presumably become their most capped player.
There are many times when he has carried the side. The senior title, though, has remained elusive.
There were three finals in consecutive years – the 2014 World Cup followed by two versions of the Copa America – and each time Argentina got close without getting their hands on the silverware.
AGE IS AGAINST HIM
Time is running out. There is a Copa America next year and the 2022 World Cup. And by then Messi will be 35.
Recent evidence would seem to indicate that Messi is content to play the wise old owl in an Argentina squad going through a process of rebuilding.
There had always been criticisms of his aloof behaviour. But during last year’s Copa America he was a changed man – a much more outgoing, encouraging, vocal figure clearly working hard to take on the burden of leadership.
Some thought he might retire from international football after Russia 2018. Instead, he seems enthused by the challenge.
But there is no need for him to play the same role at club level. He cannot change his country.
HE COULD LEAVE BARÇA
He can change his club – and with his time at the top level running short, the temptation to leave Barcelona must be throbbing in his head like a persistent headache.
No one who has followed Barcelona’s form over the last few years can have been truly surprised by what happened against Bayern Munich.
Collapse after collapse, with the cracks getting wider. Well run clubs replace players a year before it seems necessary.
The spine of the side – the likes of Pique, Busquets, Suarez – has grown old together – too old to carry out the team’s gameplan.
Huge amounts have been spent – badly – on players around the edges of the side, attempts to shoehorn the likes of Coutinho and Griezmann into roles for which they are not well suited.
A huge rebuilding job has to take place, which may take years before the club can compete effectively at the highest level. And finances are tight. The task is immense.
Lionel Messi appears to have committed himself to being part of one long term restructuring effort with his country. He could be forgiven for chasing short term success with a club.
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