“The 3-0 against Croatia left two certainties and one unknown,” wrote Sebastian Fest in Argentina’s La Nación newspaper, reeling from a defeat that left his country on the brink of World Cupelimination.
“Certainty: The national team is not a team.
“Another certainty: The national team doesn’t know how to make the most out of Lionel Messi.
“Unknown: What goes on in the head of the number 10 in games that develop from strange to tragic like today.”
That was about as kind as it got for the Barcelona man, who after working hard for years to win over the Argentinean public is almost back to that status again – the Barcelona man.
It has always been a difficult relationship between Messi, who moved away from his homeland as a young teenager, and a country of such overwhelming national pride like Argentina. It has seen him criticised before for not trying or not caring, accusations as baseless as can be. But after a defeat like this, where he offered precious little after being marooned by Jorge Sampaoli’s instructions, the criticisms were valid. And some were brutal.
“It’s not Messi plus 10 anymore,” continued Fest. “it’s 11 minus Messi.”
“The first half an hour of the game made it clear that it’s not like the captain doesn’t want it, even if his body language in the remaining hour of the game did allow the question as to how much.”
During the game, World Cup winner Jorge Valdano had described Argentina as “playing as if Messi didn’t exist.”
Many columnists and fans felt that hit the nail on the head, with Sampaoli copping plenty of the blame but a residual feeling that the best player of a generation should and could have stepped up and saved his side.
“The captain was once more absent, he played badly, he looked spent and he left the field staring at the ground,” wrote Hernan Claus of Olé.
“He didn’t take charge of the team not before going 1-0 down nor after. Exhausted, not finding his place on the field, searching for link-ups that weren’t there – Pavón and Dybala came on too late – lost in the field and only lit up by his green boots.”
La Nación’s Cristian Grosso’s frank assessment questioned Messi’s mental fortitude:
“Messi didn’t come to the rescue.
“His head of glass shattered into a thousand pieces.”
There was, of course, criticism for the team as a whole. The team that struggled to find Messi and who Messi, in turn, struggled to bail out.
“The team defrauded us all,” wrote former Argentina international Diego Latorre, the first man to be christened ‘the new Maradona’.
“The defeat and how it came about brings us closer to the moment when we must have a deep review of our football, and more than anything, find out where we really are.”
Sampaoli probably got a rougher time of it in the press than even Messi, the former Sevilla and Chile coach being crucified for his side’s lack of direction and cohesion. The 53-year-old’s frank criticisms of himself in the post-match press conference suggest that he is aware of how poor they were but it didn’t stop Andres Eliceche, writing in La Nación, venting at the coach.
“This was a game that needed to be a step forward and instead it was a step closer to the edge,” he said.
“I hope that his coming days are dark, unliveable, but I also hope they are better so they can survive a premature World Cup exit.”
And ultimately that is where this leaves Argentina. They are close to an exit but not quite there. They are on the cliff edge, peering over it, but not yet falling through the sky.
“Argentina must now construct a win against Nigeria out of their ruins,” wrote Cristian Grosso, but the ruins seem so utterly destroyed it is hard to see a revival.
For Messi and Sampaoli, it is 90 minutes to save their World Cup careers.