And one day, the prodigal son returned.
Lionel Messi’s inclusion inevitably provided the biggest talking point in Argentina’s latest international squad, as the team being nurtured by the captain’s namesake and coach, Lionel Scaloni, begins to take shape ahead of the Copa América with March friendlies against Venezuela and Morocco.
These past eight months following the pain of World Cup defeat in Kazan at the hands of France have been Messi’s longest absence from the national squad in his entire career, since making his début in 2004 at the tender age of 17. The Barcelona star looked drained and almost out of ideas when the Albiceleste crashed out of Russia, denying him once again the chance of glory in football’s most prestigious tournament at the fourth time of asking.
It would have been easy enough for him to walk away once and for all. At 31, Messi has achieved almost everything possible on the football pitch, rewriting the record books and setting an impossibly high bar both statistically and in terms of pure sporting ability for those unfortunate enough to eventually follow his footsteps.
But this return marks a watershed both for player and captain. Messi will be 35 once the next World Cup comes around in Qatar, and his comeback now surely signifies one last effort to take the big prize before drawing the final curtain on his international career.
If the return of Leo comes as little surprise, the rest of the squad marks the continuation of Scaloni’s drastic restructuring of the Albiceleste. Nine World Cup players over the age of 30 (including the retired Javier Mascherano) have been culled from the set-up, making room for a new generation to step up in the Copa in Brazil. Only Messi, Franco Armani, Ángel Di María and defensive pair Gabriel Mercado and Nicolás Otamendi survive from that group, with talents such as Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín passed over in favour of the youthful likes of Lautaro Martínez, Paulo Dybala and Ángel Correa.
Mauro Icardi too misses out, more a reflection of the messy, public break-up the Inter striker is playing out in Italy than an indication that he is likely to also sit on the sidelines during the Copa. The coach said as much on Thursday: “His current situation is complicated and it is clear that it is not in the national team’s interests for him to be here. As a player I know what he is going through and that is why we would rather not call him up.”
A number of surprise call-ups pointed to close observation of the local Superliga, with the upcoming friendlies a trial rather than rehearsal for stellar Defensa y Justicia pair Lisandro Martínez and Domingo Blanco, as well as Boca’s Iván Marcone. The former are most certainly two to watch for the future, as is Racing Club starlet Matías Zaracho, rewarded for his brilliant form in recent weeks as he continues to marshal the league-leaders’ midfield at just 20.
It is a big gamble for Scaloni. While the renovation of surnames in the Argentina team is timely if not well overdue, it is at the same time not necessarily conducive to instant success on the field. “We are at a point where we cannot guarantee we will be champions of America,” he argued during the press conference.
The Argentine public, though, have notoriously little patience for gradual processes, as do the Argentine Football Association (AFA), meaning that if things do go wrong with this young, dynamic but also experimental set of call-ups, simmering anger may not be far away. Hundreds of caps have been shed in international experience in the shape of those cut, and that kind of know-how cannot be compensated overnight.
That is where Messi comes in. The captain is charged with a bigger role than ever in the national team. Previously he was a single, albeit otherworldly cog in a team which had played together for a decade, and he had the inspirational Mascherano alongside him to keep order in the dressing room.
Now, however, he is out on his own, with a team of keen hopefuls looking to him to show them the way to glory.
Leo is back, and all eyes will be on him as Argentina dream of glory.