Road to Redemption: How Lionel Messi recovered from failures to guide Argentina to the brink of World Cup victory

The greatest player of his generation has withstood constant setbacks to take his country within one game of a long-awaited third World Cup title.

By Callum Rice-Coates Published: 16 December 2022 - 12.39pm

Lionel Messi was burdened. There was no expression, no joy, no smiles: the pressure was simply too much.

For years, the world’s best footballer was weighed down by expectation on the international stage. Argentina were not short of talent in other areas of the pitch - even in attack the likes of Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez would have been the main men for other countries - but there was an overwhelming reliance on Messi’s brilliance.

When he didn’t produce, the narrative was predictable. But it soon became clear that the dependence on one player was a problem for Argentina.

There were near misses of course: Argentina, buoyed by Messi playing some of the best football of his career, reached the 2014 World Cup final in South Africa. When they were beaten 1-0 by Germany, though, all eyes were on the diminutive number 10.

A late free-kick had raised heartbeats back in Buenos Aires but Messi had sent the ball sailing over the wall and over the crossbar. The collective groan was one of anguish. It was quickly forgotten that Gonzalo Higuain had missed his team’s clearest chance of the game.

But the standards, for Messi, were stratospheric. Losing in the final left many of an Argentina persuasion feeling fatalistic. As one publication put it, “he’s good, but he’s not quite Diego”.

The comparisons with Diego Maradona were an inevitable consequence of reaching such an iconic status in Argentina.

“The similarities are too many to list,” Santi Bauza, a sports journalist based in Buenos Aires, told BT Sport. “For some people, especially older heads who got to witness Maradona first hand, there's something mystical and at the same time very personal about Diego that Messi could never match.”

It had perhaps not helped that Messi had left Argentina as a child to pursue greatness in Catalonia, with Barcelona, while Maradona had not made the move to Camp Nou until his early 20s, having played first for Argentinos Juniors and then Boca Juniors.

And as the years passed it seemed less and less likely that Messi would be able to replicate Maradona’s achievements for La Albiceleste. They were beaten Copa America finalists in 2007, 2015 and 2016, the nearly men of South America.

The turning point came in 2018 when Lionel Scaloni, a man whose only previous experience had been four months with the U20 team, was appointed Argentina head coach. He quickly realised that his team needed to facilitate Messi, not be subservient to him.

With renewed defensive resilience and tactical adaptability, Argentina began to hit on a winning formula. The ball was no longer simply given to Messi in the hope he would produce something. There was, crucially, some balance to the team.

The culmination of Scaloni’s changes was a first Copa America title in 28 years, a 1-0 victory over Brazil in Rio that sparked jubilant celebrations.

“The happiness is immense,” Messi said. “Many times I dreamed of this.

“I had a lot of confidence in this group that became very strong since the last Copa America. It is a group of very good people, who always push forward, who never complain about anything.”

The strength of the group has only increased since then, emboldened by their success and the end of a run of failures. For Messi, too, the pressure has been lifted.

“Messi knows that at this point in his career he owes nothing to no one anymore,” said Bauza. “Whatever he does, he'll already have his place in history, and that Copa America title goes a long way towards achieving that. And he's spoken about it, about finally enjoying a World Cup, having fun while it lasts.”

Enjoyment has been the key for Messi and Argentina in Qatar. Previous teams might have crumbled after the shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in the first group match, but Scaloni’s side have done the opposite.

Their run to the final has required immense self-belief and plenty of tournament know-how. That was lacking in 2018, when many thought defeat in the last 16 to France might spell the end for Messi in the World Cup.

But he is back, on the verge of a win that would take his status as one of the greatest players of all time to another level entirely. Crucially, though, it is no longer the be-all and end-all.

That was highlighted by the praise lavished on Messi by reporter Sofi Martinez Mateos in a post-match interview after the semi-final win over Croatia: “I just want to tell you that no matter the results, there’s something that no one can take from you, and it’s the fact that you resonated with Argentinians, every single one. There’s no kid who doesn’t have your team shirt, no matter if it’s fake, real or a made up one. Truly, you made your mark in everyone’s life. And that, to me, is beyond winning any World Cup.”

Messi looked on with a smile on his face. Come kick-off at Lusail Stadium on Sunday, the pressure and expectation will be there again, but this feels very different to 2014.

“It is the one thing those very last Messi critics have clung on to keep him away from the best of all time consideration,” said Bauza. “I'm sure if he wins it they will keep scraping for arguments, but those will look as daft as they'll ever be. 

“For the rest of us, it would certainly be the crowning achievement of a dazzling career. He would no doubt cement even more emphatically his place among the very best.”