EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Argentina has more psychologists per capita than any country in the world—one can’t go out in Buenos Aires without meeting bunches of them—and not a single one of them can fix the toxic psyche of its national team.
The latest example came on Sunday, when Lionel Messi and an Argentina team that had lorded over the Copa América Centenario failed to seal the deal again and came away losers in another final. The third straight major final in as many years, to be exact, this time to Chile on penalty kicks after a 0–0 tie. And whether or not Messi follows through on his stunning words that he’s probably retiring from the national team at 29, his drastic response is only a manifestation of a larger psychosis surrounding this team.
Forget England. The most underachieving national team of the past two decades is Argentina, which still hasn’t won a major title since 1993 despite being blessed with some of the most talented players in the world year after year after year. It was one thing to go out in the quarterfinals of tournaments. But the feeling of loss is somehow even worse the last three years, when Messi’s teams reached finals and gave every indication that now the hex was over, only to triple down on it.
By getting so close to the ultimate goal, they made the crash even more painful. As the evening neared its end and more international retirements came to the surface—Javier Mascherano, for one; possibly Sergio Agüero for another—it made one wonder if Argentina had reached some kind of collective mental breaking point.
Penalty kicks are diabolically mental, and there was something Shakespearean about Messi leading off for Argentina and launching his spot kick high over the bar with that left foot that has been a source of genius over the years. When Lucas Biglia approached his own penalty three rounds later, he looked like a man on his way to the gallows. “There’s no way he’s converting this,” I said to my seatmate, SI colleague Brian Straus, and he didn’t.
The mental aspect, seizing up in a final, is the most plausible (the only?) answer for what ailed Argentina ultimately in this Copa América. The Argentines blew out their opponents by an 18–2 score in the five victories that preceded Sunday’s final. One of those victims was Chile, a deserved 2–1 loser in the teams’ opening game. Messi was playing as well as he ever had for his national team, pulling the strings, scoring five wondrous goals and his most reliable target was (wait for it) Gonzalo Higuaín.
Higuaín couldn’t miss in his last two games, scoring four impressive goals and displaying the finishing touch that had taken him to the single-season goals record in Italy’s Serie A this past season for Napoli. Even the most die-hard Higuaín-haters among Argentine fans had started to warm up to him after his crucial misses had led to losses in the World Cup 2014 final and the 2015 Copa América final. Even Higuaín is finishing! This must be our year!
But then Higuaín had a breakaway in the 22nd minute on Sunday, and it happened again. In a final. He blew the chance, scuffing it wide left of the Chilean goal.
Afterward, Argentina coach Gerardo (Tata) Martino was asked a sad and now-familiar question: How can you explain another horrible miss by Higuaín in his third straight major final in as many years? Nothing Martino said was as candid as his physical response, one that conveyed something deeper than mere frustration.
He put his head in his hands. This was resignation on a cosmic scale.
The worst kind of failure is when you sabotage yourselves. Argentina’s federation, a miasma of corruption, mismanagement and selfishness, is so dysfunctional that FIFA had to take it over this week. Its presidential election last December ended in a 38–38 tie—even though there were 75 voters. Messi had called out AFA bosses this week, calling them a disaster, and he said he’d elaborate more after the final.
Well, maybe this announcement is Messi’s elaboration. Who knows if he’s serious? Who knows if we’ll see him at World Cup 2018? I kind of suspect we will. We can only speculate right now, but maybe Messi felt like Argentine soccer needed a shock to the system.
What it really needs is a first-rate psychologist, and on Sunday, at the conclusion of another trophy deferred, there were none in sight.