he increasingly fanciful hope in Argentina was that this World Cup would bring Lionel Messi’s career peak, but the deepening worry around the squad is that it has already brought one of his worst lows in the game. They’ve never really seen him like this, as withdrawn and sombre as he has been in their Bronnitsy base over the last few days.
Saturday’s penalty miss against Iceland has hit him hard. The 30-year-old could barely show his face the next day. Although the Argentine staff had organised a family barbecue to celebrate father’s day, Messi didn’t go. He stayed in the room he shares with Sergio Aguero, alone.
It should be noted Messi’s own family were not there, as they don’t arrive until the next few days, so that will have increased his desire to stay away – but it was just as noteworthy that his wife Antonella felt the need for a public show of support on Instagram.
This is a man who feels he’s let his nation down. “I am responsible for what happened,” Messi said after Iceland, and he fears for what could happen next. He’s all too aware of the stakes at this World Cup, for both himself and Argentina.
Many around the Argentina camp have picked up on how often he said some variation of “it’s now or never” to media in the build-up to this World Cup. All he can seem to see right now is “never”.
For their part, the rest of the Argentine squad have themselves been highly aware of Messi’s downbeat mood, and the need to lift him in more ways than one. They fully recognise they are effectively here because of him, that his talent represents their only chance of going far, but that it’s unfair to always expect him “to be Superman”. They want to work out a system that is best for Messi, and offer support in so many ways. They want to step up.
It’s just that Messi is so fundamentally important to Argentina that if he isn’t right, it can disrupt the rhythm of the whole side. And this is a group that, according to those close to the camp, don’t deal with setbacks well.
It’s for that reason manager Jorge Sampaoli has been so focused on mental work in the build-up to this huge match against Croatia. There’s been a lot of talk about sports psychology around their Bronnitsy base, but the deeper and typical problem for Argentina is that they just can’t afford to focus on that. They have so much work to do.
It’s not just that Croatia have a better system, but that they have one that works, in a way that Argentina’s does not. That has meant Zlatko Djalic’s side also have something else Argentina do not: belief, confidence.
“We have phenomenal players, from the goalkeeper to the defenders to the attackers,” Mateo Kovacic declared on Tuesday. “We don’t need to fear Argentina. We believe we are better than they are.”
That probably isn’t even hubristic bravado either, but rather a fair assessment of reality. A mere glance at the Argentina line-up against Iceland re-affirms. There are some big names, but then a lot of little-known names, because of what is a front-loaded squad. And if Argentina are missing key pieces, this game looks like it’s falling into place to provide one of those jarring reality checks, the kind of hard reckoning when it all caves in. The real end of an era. Indeed, it’s difficult to know how they’re going to get the ball off Croatia, given the quality of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in midfield.
Argentina just can’t touch that quality, and may not be able to get near them without a serious reshaping of the side. Just one other factor worsening Messi’s mood is reportedly his sense of responsibility for suggesting the midfield pair of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia, a pairing that simply didn’t work against Iceland.
With so much doubt and hesitation, Sampaoli has attempted to offer a certain decisiveness of his own. He is making big changes to the team. Sampaoli is first of all throwing out the four-man backline the players say they prefer, and returning to his own idealised three. He is then jettisoning three of the old guard in Angel Di Maria, Marcos Rojo and Biglia, and bringing in younger players in Nicolas Tagliafico, Cristian Pavon and Marcos Acuna.
These are more of the lesser-known names, but the entire point is that they are pumped to make a name for themselves – and make the drives Sampaoli’s football requires. It’s something he particularly wants for this game.
The message around the Argentina camp over the last few days is that, against Croatia’s possession, they are “going to have to run… and run and run”.
Given even the dysfunctional last few games of qualification and the squad’s disrupted preparation programme, this feels a real risk. It may further precipitate that cave-in.
But it may also be the jolt they badly need, the big difference to cause the big change in mood and get them thinking about something else.
The bottom line, though, is that if Messi in any way turns it on, he can still turn everything on its head.
Sampaoli’s changes might help that but, even then, Messi’s mood should not be dwelt upon as a negative even if he is far from feeling positive.
His history suggests that sombre demeanour and solitude are not the set-up for worse, but the prelude to something better. In the past, he has often similarly retreated, but only to consider everything so he can get himself primed and ready. Many in the Argentina squad saw the same thing after a frustrating first game of the 2015 Copa America.
One source very familiar with the Barcelona set-up meanwhile told The Independent: “Messi will turn up. I’m sure about it.”
That’s what they’ve known of him, that’s what they fully expect from him. That’s why it all still comes back to him: the squad’s mood, the match, the group and maybe still the World Cup.
He may have been feeling alone, but it could yet see him stand alone. He knows the stakes and what he needs to do