Lionel Messi’s defining Argentina moments

After Lionel Messi endured more heartache with Argentina, we look at the highs and lows of his international career.

The country’s record scorer was unable to prevent his side crashing to a 4-3 defeat by France in the last-16 of the World Cup on Saturday.

It is just the latest setback he has suffered on the international stage, though. Here, we pick out some defining moments from Messi’s time in Argentina colours…

Sent off on debut

By the time Messi made his Argentina debut, the hype around this exciting teenage talent was surging. After opting for Argentina over Spain, he had shone for the U20s, scoring twice in the U20 World Cup final in July 2005, and earned his first senior cap in an August friendly that year against Hungary as an 18-year-old. It ended in tears. Literally.

Sent on as a second-half sub, Messi was only on the field for a couple of minutes before he flung his arm at Vilmos Vanczak. The defender had grabbed a clump of Messi’s shirt as he darted past and the little forward had barely caught his opponent as he tried to break free. But while it was a yellow for the Hungarian, the referee brandished a red card at Messi. He was later found crying in the dressing room, or so the story goes.

For all of Messi’s prodigious ability, this was perhaps a symbolic moment hinting at the frustrations and obstacles Messi would later face on the international stage. Just like his debut, his international career hasn’t panned out quite how he would have dreamed it…

Messi with Argentina

Caps: 128
Goals: 65 (record)
Honours: U20 World Cup 2005, Olympic Games 2008, World Cup runner-up 2014, Copa America runner-up 2007, 2015, 1016

Olympic Games glory

For all the disappointment in Argentina colours, Messi does at least have an Olympic gold medal in his possession. In 2008, with Messi already a key player for Barcelona, he had initially been barred from playing in Beijing by his club as the tournament clashed with Champions League qualifiers. Fortunately for Messi and Argentina, new Barca boss Pep Guardiola saw it differently.

Guardiola, an Olympic champion himself, knew the importance of the competition to Messi and his countrymen and permitted him to go. Messi seized the chance – and the tournament, playing a key role in Argentina’s progress to the final, where he set up the only goal of the game against Nigeria. It is a victory he treasures.

“The Olympic gold in 2008 is the win that I value the most,” he told Spanish outlet Esquire. “It is a tournament that you may only play in once in your life and involves many athletes from different disciplines.”

Messi: Argentina prodigy

Messi became the youngest player to represent – and score for – Argentina at a World Cup in 2006, aged 18 years, 357 days.

2014 World Cup final heartbreak

After no goals but heaps of criticism in South Africa 2010, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil seemed the perfect stage for Messi to finally lead Argentina to glory on the biggest stage. Wearing the captain’s armband, he set about leading from the front, scoring important goals in all three group games.

Come the knockouts, he turned provider, assisting a late extra-time winner against Switzerland and kicking off the move that led to the only goal of the game against Belgium. His assured penalty then set the tone in the semi-final shootout win over the Netherlands.

But come the final he could not inspire his team-mates to make the last step. “It’s very painful to lose in the manner that we did,” Messi said after Mario Gotze’s extra-time winner grabbed Germany victory.

Messi was controversially awarded the Golden Ball as best player at the tournament. “The prize doesn’t interest me at all,” he said, as he reflected on Argentina’s defeat. The Golden Ball was his but the golden opportunity to emulate Diego Maradona with a World Cup win had escaped Messi’s grasp.

More final defeats and short-lived retirement

“For me, the national team is over. I’ve done all I can,” said a disconsolate Messi as he announced his international retirement after Argentina’s 2016 Copa America final defeat by Chile.

In a repeat of the 2015 Copa America final, Argentina had once again lost to their South American neighbours on penalties after a 0-0 stalemate. Messi had delivered at vital moments in both competitions but after heartbreak in the 2007 edition of the competition and the previous World Cup, his record in major finals reads: four finals, four defeats.

The disappointment had become too much.

Messi has so often been the target for criticism from the demanding Argentina supporters, but now they campaigned for him to change his mind. It worked. Messi reversed his decision and scored in the 1-0 win on his return, a World Cup qualifier against Uruguay. Re-motivated for one more tilt at major honours with his country, Messi set his sights on Russia 2018.

Hat-trick hero sets up one last World Cup shot

Despite running to the finals of the 2014 World Cup and 2015 and 2016 Copa Americas, Argentina were in severe danger of missing out on Russia 2018, continually suffering setbacks during the extended South American qualifying campaign. Would Argentina miss out for the first time since 1970?

Not if Messi had anything to do with it. The Argentina captain was at his brilliant best in the decisive clash with Ecuador. Argentina were behind with just 38 seconds on the clock but Messi came up with a match-winning hat-trick to secure the comeback win and book a place at the World Cup.

From the close-range opener to the edge-of-the-box drive and superb solo third, it was a masterclass in performing under pressure. “Luckily the nationality of the best player in the world is Argentinian,” said boss Jorge Sampaoli. Unfortunately for Sampaoli, Argentina and the main man himself, Messi was unable to haul a poor national side to success in Russia.

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