Argentina exit the Copa America early but they've won something better: Messi is fired up again
After Argentina's semifinal defeat to Brazil, many headlines have focused on the enduring failure of Lionel Messi to win a senior title with the national team. This remains true, of course, and is an obvious journalistic angle. But specifically for this Copa America, it almost certainly misses the point. Messi and Argentina would clearly have loved to win this tournament but it always looked unlikely, and it probably doesn't explain Messi's participation in a competition that he could easily have missed.
Argentina are still recovering from the disaster of last year's World Cup. They had coach Jorge Sampaoli on a long-term contract, though this always seemed like a rash move. Sampaoli is a fine coach, one of the most exciting in the game, but his model of play -- high energy, high press, strangle the opponents in their half of the field -- is one that Argentina are unable to execute. They lack the defensive pace and a goalkeeper who is good with his feet and for these reasons, Argentina's chaotic campaign in Russia last year was entirely predictable.
Moreover, Sampaoli has no great track record in youth development and Argentina, after being so good at the Under-20 level in particular between 1995-2007, have fallen right off the pace in the years since. Sampaoli was not the man to fix this. He was the wrong choice for the short term and the wrong choice for the long term.
After the World Cup, Argentina had to pay a fortune to get rid of him and up stepped a youth coach, former right-back Lionel Scaloni, to take over the senior side on a caretaker basis. With the Argentine Football Association in dire financial straits, Scaloni had one massive advantage: He was cheap and with World Cup qualification not getting underway until March 2020, there was no great urgency. Scaloni, then, was given a full year in charge, including the current Copa America.
It was time to rebuild. Scaloni's attempt to implant a new idea of play was unwise. For one, his fixation with quick transitions to the wings did not allow for Lionel Messi. When the Barcelona No. 10 returned to national team duty, it was clear that the idea was unworkable and Argentina have spent the Copa inching toward something more appropriate, constructing a circuit of passing through the middle of the field.
More important than any new idea of play have been the new players brought through this summer. Scaloni's original squad included only nine survivors from the Russia 2018 squad and just five from the 2016 Copa Centenario. Every other side selected more. Argentina, then, have been in the process of forming a new group and many of these new players will surely feature in the plans of the new coach, whenever he is announced.
This sense of progress would seem to be key to Messi's presence in Brazil. From one point of view, it made little sense for him to be here; his side have a caretaker coach and there will be another Copa next year when Argentina will play their group matches at home, under their new boss. With no great expectations of victory, then, it would make sense for Messi to put his feet up this summer and ensure that he has enough gas in the tank for a long 2019-20 season.
What has become apparent in the course of this Copa, though, is that Messi's behaviour has changed. He is a more vocal figure, encouraging teammates on the pitch, speaking at length to journalists after the matches. He has grown into the idea of being a leader for this new generation.
Even though they depart the 2019 Copa America in defeat, there is one big positive takeaway. Argentina are initiating a new project, and Messi clearly wants to be part of it.