A World Cup is a celebration of the world’s best footballers, but for many, if Argentina fail to qualify, the best of them all will not be there.
Even when Lionel Messi briefly retired from international football after a third final defeat in as many years — one against Germany in the World Cup and two against Chile in consecutive Copa Americas — a World Cup without the five-time Ballon d’Or winner still seemed unimaginable.
A country-wide campaign, which included support from Argentine president Mauricio Macri, Diego Maradona and the metro system in Buenos Aires, predictably convinced Messi to change his mind. How could he give up the opportunity to make amends for those final defeats by leading his country to success in Russia?
Now, 12 months on, though, a World Cup without Messi is more imaginable than ever. And it’s not completely his fault.
“Leo, for me, was above everyone else on the pitch and if we can’t take advantage of him it is worrying,” Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said on Wednesday after his side slumped to a draw against bottom Venezuela in World Cup qualifying.
Whether you agree with Sampaoli’s sympathetic take on Messi’s performance after the Albiceleste’s second successive draw in qualifying — they’re without a win in three — the statistics illustrate Messi’s importance to his country.
In eight games with him in CONMEBOL qualifying, Argentina have won five matches and picked up 17 points. In eight games without him, they’ve won just once, picking up seven points, which is the major reason they find themselves facing the real prospect of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1970.
In theory, Sampaoli’s side should win their remaining games against Peru and Ecuador and finish the campaign in one of the four automatic qualifying spots — the fifth-place team, where Argentina dangerously sit at the moment, face an intercontinental playoff.
But “in theory” is not a good gauge for this Argentina team. In theory, they should have beaten Venezuela this week. In theory, they should have beaten Ecuador, Paraguay (twice), Bolivia …
In reality, they didn’t manage any of that, though. And now their World Cup dream is on the verge of becoming a nightmare, as Diario Ole’s Diego Macias puts it. “Playing like this, we don’t deserve to be there, either,” he wrote on Wednesday.
Plus, Peru and Ecuador won’t be easy. Peru are young, hungry and in form. They have moved up to fourth on the back of six wins in 10. Ecuador have already beaten Argentina, too.
All of which leads us to a potential World Cup without Messi, which is something which would have consequences for Argentina, but also for FIFA, adidas and the competition’s many other sponsors who will hope to be heavily leaning on the player’s image next summer.
The biggest consequences of all, though, may be for Messi. He will turn 31 during the tournament and this is the trophy some feel he needs to win to cement his place alongside Maradona and Pele — it’s not quite the World Cup, but even Cristiano Ronaldo’s success with Portugal at last summer’s European Championships has added extra pressure.
Messi is obviously aware of all of that. He’s also desperate to win a trophy with Argentina. You only have to watch footage of his reaction after last summer’s Copa America final defeat to see how much it meant to him, a country’s expectations pinned on his shoulders.
In the past, he could at least seek solace at Barcelona. But not even life at Camp Nou is a surefire thing anymore. The board are under pressure, they’ve been knocked out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals the last two years, Real Madrid are on the up and a turbulent transfer window, exceptions aside, ended in an unsatisfactory manner.
But it’s on the pitch where there are doubts all of a sudden. And not because age is catching up with Messi, but because his club — who are still floundering around trying to get him to fulfil the protocol of signing his new contract with his current terms due to expire next summer — and his country need him more than ever.
Sampaoli, while still Sevilla manager, dubbed him “Batman” and Barca and Argentina both may need a superhero over the next 10 months.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.