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Lionel Messi has a huge decision to make about his Argentina future

It seems only moments have passed since Nestor Pitana blew the final whistle in Luzhniki Stadium; only a blink of an eye since Vladimir Putin sheltered under his brolly as Emmanuel Macron got soaked and Hugo Lloris thrust the Jules Rimet trophy into the Moscow night sky.

But already the first post-World Cup friendlies are upon us. And that means the start of a new four-year cycle and, for many teams, the start of a process of renewal and revitalisation.

None more so than for Argentina. The South American nation had a disastrous tournament in Russia, crashing out to France in the round-of-16 after scraping through their group.

They turned in some abject performances, including the 3-0 loss at the hands of Croatia and the 1-1 draw with Iceland, and showed no cohesion or clear idea of how to approach the game. For that, manager Jorge Sampaoli has since been ousted.

The Albiceleste also had one of the oldest squads in Russia, with an average age of 29.3. When compared with France’s 26, it becomes clear why the team is in such bad need of an injection of youthful energy.

Some of the older players – veterans of previous World Cups like Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Mascherano, and Lucas Biglia – will have to be moved on for good, whilst others will be phased out over the course of the next four years.

But there is, of course, one man whose decision dominates the discussion above all else: Lionel Messi.

For other players, their continued selection is not up to them; only the manager will decide whether they are wanted or not. But Messi is a special case; his future firmly in his hands.

FBL-WC-2018-MATCH50-FRA-ARG

And for now, he has decided to take a step away from the international limelight. In August, the Argentine Football Association announced that their star player will not take to the field in the Albiceleste shirt “at least until the end of the year.”

This will provide time for Messi to rest, clear his head and mull over his options, and an opportunity for interim manager Lionel Scaloni to introduce new faces into the team.

As Scaloni said when he presented his youthful squad for upcoming friendlies against Guatemala and Colombia, “We have not [yet] spoken about what will happen in the future. We all know what [Messi] represents, we will see what comes to pass.”

In January, then, Messi will face a pivotal decision – one of the biggest of his illustrious career.

Will he leave the national team behind for good to concentrate only on Barcelona? If he did, it would likely prolong his club career. For South American players, travelling back and forth across the Atlantic for every international break can take its toll.

Lionel Messi in action for Argentina

If he does decide to keep playing in the sky blue and white, though, how long will that be for? And, perhaps more crucially, on what terms?

First on the horizon is the 2019 Copa America, to be played in Brazil in July. Messi has famously never won a trophy with Argentina and it is a fine chance to do so, far easier than winning the World Cup.

There is the added bonus of games being focused almost exclusively in the South East of Brazil during the country’s winter, minimising the external factors which sometimes affect the tournament such as traveling time, altitude and heat.

If he is to play – and there is no doubt that Argentine football fans are desperate for him to do so – Messi will want certain assurances.

As previously alluded to, no permanent successor for Jorge Sampaoli has been appointed and the AFA, Argentine football’s governing body, is in a seemingly constant state of financial and political crisis.

Messi will want to see who comes in to take the helm of this troublesome ship and in which direction they will turn it. The need for new ideas and a more organised playing style is clear, but the AFA does not have the money required to bring in a big name.

After that, there is another stage in the process; the three years from the end of the Copa America until the next World Cup in 2022.

Will we see Lionel Messi at another World Cup?

By the time the tournament in Qatar comes around, Messi will be 35. But with the way he has adapted his game in recent years to save energy – no other outfield player ran less at the World Cup – he will very likely still have enough in the tank to play.

The question again is whether he will want to. Before going to Russia, he had told a television station in his homeland that it was “now or never”. After the way events unfolded, however, that sentiment may have changed.

If it has, it is not just the tournament itself that he will need to think about but the marathon South American qualifying campaign, a gruelling 18-game crusade across the continent, taking in the altitude of La Paz and Quito and the sweltering heat of Barranquilla.

Perhaps, though, Messi can come to some sort of arrangement where the new manager allows him to choose his battles, being rolled out, like your gran’s finest cutlery, only on special occasions.

Argentina's coach Diego Maradona (R) spe

If so, another chance may well be too tempting to pass up. Were Argentina to win it in 2022, Messi would, in his homeland, move up from bonafide legend to the god-like status of Maradona.

There is also the economic side of things to consider. Messi is not just footballer, he is a global brand. And as he reaches the end of his career, he will have to think ever harder about how to maintain that marketing appeal even after he has hung up his boots.

The next World Cup will be the first ever to be held in the Middle East and the opportunity to promote his image in the region is one that will have his financial advisers licking their lips.

As they take on Guatemala and Colombia over the coming days without the stars who have been part of the squad for so long, we may see a glimpse of what the future holds for the Albiceleste.

What Argentina really wants to know, though, is whether Lionel Messi will be a part of it. For that, they will have to wait a little longer yet.

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