Lionel Messi & Argentina: What next after Copa America red card?

Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain
Blame Gonzalo Higuain for Lionel Messi's lack of international success? The striker has missed some big opportunities over the years.

Swap Jorge Burruchaga for Gonzalo Higuain and perhaps one of the doubts about Lionel Messi's place in the pantheon would have been put to bed years ago.

The eternal complaint: that Messi has not won a senior title with Argentina. The eternal comparison: with Diego Maradona in 1986.

In that year's World Cup final in Mexico, West Germany had fought back from two goals down to draw level.

Had they gone on to beat Argentina, Maradona's reputation would have suffered.

Instead, he slipped a pass through for Burruchaga, who kept his head to score, win the World Cup and seal Maradona's legendary status.

Messi, meanwhile, did much to carry Argentina to three finals in consecutive years.

Every time they went down to narrow defeats - 1-0 by Germany in the 2014 World Cup, and on penalties against Chile after goalless draws in the Copa America finals of 2015 and 2016. Every time the big chance of the match fell to Higuain - and every time it was wasted.

Perhaps Messi's international career was cursed from the start.

He made his Argentina debut off the bench in a friendly against Hungary in 2005. He had only just come on when he launched into one of those trademark dribbles, ball tied to his left foot, swerving and changing direction as he went.

He flew past a Hungarian defender, who held on to him in an illegal attempt to impede his progress. Messi fought to free himself - and was shown a red card for throwing an elbow.

Lionel Messi
Messi received the first red card of his career on his international debut against Hungary in 2005...
Lionel Messi
... and got his second 14 years later against Chile on Saturday

It was a decision almost as bizarre as the red card he received against Chile in Saturday's Copa America third-place play-off.

Paraguayan referee Mauro Diaz de Vivar appeared to be playing the old game of sending off one from each side in a vain bid to establish his authority in a difficult match, and charged into the melee brandishing his red card after a flare-up between Messi and Gary Medel.

The Argentine had set the ball rolling with a little push, but was innocent thereafter when Medel turned around to confront him. Nevertheless, the card was out and Messi had to go.

Has he gone for ever? Might those two red cards - the only ones of his career - bookend his time in the blue and white stripes of Argentina?

It is certainly a possibility.

Messi, of course, announced his retirement from the national team immediately after that 2016 Copa defeat, when he seemed to arrive at the conclusion that things would never work out for him with Argentina.

He was soon coaxed back. However, the 32-year-old could now be dwelling on the view that he should have stuck to his original decision.

Since then, Argentina have fielded some dismal teams, while expecting the Barcelona great to provide all the solutions.

And he found plenty to moan about during this Copa America, including the standard of the pitches - "the ball is jumping around like a rabbit" - and the refereeing decision that provoked his outburst after the Chile game - "the Copa is fixed for Brazil" and "we don't have to be part of this corruption".

Even if he wants to continue, Messi may have to wait out a suspension. Conmebol, South American football's governing body, is very touchy about accusations of corruption in the wake of the Fifa scandal which did such harm to the organisation's prestige and finances.

The Argentina captain's comments have opened him up to the South American version of a "bringing the game into disrepute" charge.

So, there are obstacles to his continuing international career.

The evidence taken from this Copa, though, was of a Messi engaged as never before in the affairs of the national team.

There was every reason to believe he might give the tournament a miss. Argentina have a caretaker coach in Lionel Scaloni and there is another Copa in 2020 - part of the transition from odd to even years - when Argentina, sharing hosting duties with Colombia, will be playing their group games at home.

The common sense thing would have been for Messi to put his feet up this summer and keep his gas in the tank for next year - when, under a definitive coach and with a more consolidated model of play, Argentina should be more competitive. There were never genuine hopes Argentina would end their 26-year wait for a senior title at Brazil 2019.

And yet Messi came - perhaps less in the hope of unexpected glory, and more in a quest to be the leader of the new group Argentina are forming.

In the past, a criticism of him with the Argentina squad has often been that he is too remote, too caught up in his own little world, too distant from the rest of the players. Scaloni was initially very reluctant to call up Sergio Aguero - based, it appears, on a fear that the presence of his old friend had a tendency to shut Messi off from the others.

None of this can apply to Messi's conduct over the past few weeks. He has clearly gone out of his way to be the leader, vocal and communicative on the pitch, vocal and communicative after every game with the media.

This time he may have been too vocal and communicative for his own good. Who would have thought it?

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