After one last Lionel Messi 35-yard free-kick struck the wall, John Strong, semi-accidentally, said that Iceland had beaten Argentina by a score of 1-1. Argentina may have picked up the same amount of points as Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in their first group stage games, but it justifiably felt like a loss.
For Messi, undeniably the best player in the world and soccer’s closest LeBron James equivalent, it will serve as another international disappointment. He had a poorly-taken penalty saved by the suddenly superhuman Iceland goalkeeper, and he put just three of his 11 shots on target.
The international game is vastly different from the club game. Messi dominates for FC Barcelona, playing alongside his closest non-Ronaldo equals, but has not piled up the same gaudy statistics for Argentina. That isn’t to say he takes any marked step down. He’s still the GOAT and he plays like it. But it’s not quite the same.
Iceland are a perfect microcosm for why that is. They sat deep, packed the area in front of their backline and quadruple-teamed Messi every time he got on the ball. He was hacked and forced to pass to his teammates, who almost never were able to take advantage of the space provided to them.
Argentina have infamously failed to surround Messi with a coherent team, so when sides like Iceland encounter them, they can afford jump all over Messi and leave space to other players.
Messi, like LeBron, is an expert at finding and putting the ball into that space. LeBron would drive, pull three defenders to him and then kick it out to J.R. Smith, who would brick a corner three. Messi would dribble to the top of the box and slide it to the flank to Angel Di Maria or Maximiliano Meza, who so often floundered with ball at their feet.
There becomes a point where Messi can’t do anything about his teammates inability to make productive plays near the goal. He started taking things upon himself later in the second half, generating (somewhat) quality shots with intricate, insanely-difficult dribbles. Those often did not come off. Iceland put on a defensive masterclass.
He carried this mistake-prone, disjointed team to qualification, and he dragged them to three major finals (all of which they were unlucky to lose) earlier in this decade. It’s not that he can’t do it with this team.
But the criticism he’s received is not worthy. Failing to produce a long-range golazo in a game against such difficult opposition is not something to look down upon.
If Messi wasn't Messi, just a guy playing like Messi has played today, everyone would be like, "that guy is an excellent soccer player and maybe should've done better with the penalty. Also, Iceland's defending well with numbers." But he's gotta be Highlights 24/7, apparently.— Miriti Murungi (@NutmegRadio) June 16, 2018
Yes, he missed the penalty, but only Messi can be roundly castigated for being by far the best player on the field.
The burden of bringing a World Cup to Argentina is immense, and the media pressure down there was the primary factor in his briefly retiring from the national team in 2016. Messi badly wants a World Cup. For many, his legacy depends on it, no matter how profoundly dumb and unfair it is to base his status on his ability to singlehandedly win this trophy.
He seemed overly stressed in that first game, like he was feeling that intense burden. If he had scored late in this match, I’d be willing to bet his first internal reaction would have been relief over joy.
Messi deserves a World Cup. But let’s not crucify him if it doesn’t happen.