The international footballing world was taken by surprise, to say the least, when Argentinian star forward Lionel Messi announced his retirement from the national team. It had been only hours since Messi and his countrymen fell to Chile in the Copa América Final when his decision was made public. After a heartbreaking extra-time loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup Final and finishing runner-up for yet another Copa América, Argentina’s all-time leading scorer decided it was time to step away.
Age definitely wasn’t the deciding factor, since plenty of national teams have captains aged 30 and above (Australia’s Tim Cahill is 36 and still going strong). At 29, it would seem that Messi still has plenty to contribute at the club level with Barcelona and internationally with Argentina. Having eight La Liga titles and four Champions League titles to his name, not to mention a record five Ballons d’Or, international hardware seems to be the only thing missing from Messi’s trophy cabinet (he does have an Olympic gold medal, but no World Cup or Copa América wins).
It seems hard to believe that he would walk away without conquering the international football world, especially after coming so close. But getting that close and coming up short, not once or twice, but four times may have simply crushed his confidence.
The Olympic Situation
Due to International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules, just three players over the age of 23 are eligible to compete for an Olympic national football team. Messi would have been a clear choice for this year’s Argentina team, but he was not included on the preliminary roster announced earlier this year. He had his sights set on the Copa América and did not want to wear himself out by playing two major tournaments in one summer.
Now the Rio Olympics are nearly upon us and Argentina will be forced to compete in the Olympics without their captain. Even if Argentina had wished to include Messi in their Olympic squad, they surely wouldn’t be able to now. While Argentina has, undoubtedly, one of the strongest squads in the world, having Messi in the lineup could only have been positive.
What the Future Holds
Argentina retained the top spot in the most recent FIFA World Rankings, despite their loss to Chile. You have to wonder if more losses will follow in the near future, or if a poor showing in Rio will be detrimental to their ranking.
The next match for Argentina’s full squad will be a World Cup Qualifying match against Uruguay in September. Other WCQ opponents on the schedule for 2016 include Colombia, Brazil, and Chile, teams that can potentially cause problems for a Messi-less Argentina.
It’s not that Argentina doesn’t have other scorers to pick from. It’s just that it’s impossible to fully replace Messi and the impact he has on each game. Messi is a one-man wrecking crew, an attacker that opposing teams must gameplan against. He causes a variety of headaches for defenses and has a presence on the pitch that only a few players in world football have. He’s a player that defenders worry about on the wings, in the box, and on set pieces.
Messi’s instinct, experience, and overall knowledge of the game are invaluable. Taking him out of the picture only makes playing Argentina easier, even if the likes of Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María are playing. Think about it: teams would rather play Agüero and Di María every single time over Agüero, Di María, and Messi.
While Messi’s retirement has no impact on next month’s Olympics, as he wasn’t slated to play in the first place, it will absolutely affect Argentina’s 2018 World Cup run. World Cup Qualifying can be grueling, spanning several months with matches occurring in the middle of many European leagues’ regular season. In those games where the energy is low and few opportunities have arisen, having a player like Messi who can create scoring chances on his own is wonderful. Sometimes teams are in need of a player who can put the team on his back and go create a goal out of nothing.
Don’t let Messi’s stature fool you. He’s definitely a guy that can carry a team on his back.
Now what I’m not saying is that Argentina won’t qualify for the World Cup or they won’t be successful or anything like that. I’m saying it’s going to be more challenging for them down the road to maintain their status as the world’s top football team.
Argentina will sorely miss Lionel Messi as they qualify for their first World Cup without the Little Magician in over a decade.