It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
The sight of Lionel Messi looking lost on the stage he’s most comfortable could well be the final chapter in his Argentina career.
Even Team Ronaldo fanboys, taking time out from sharpening their 240-character Twitter knives, couldn’t have enjoyed the spectacle.
Messi was outplayed. The greatest footballer to lace up a pair of boots* was bullied by a hungry, technical and unified pack of Croatian wolves.
He touched his face, flicking his hair out of his eyes anxiously, more times than he touched the ball.
*Feel free to ignore and dismiss this opinion if you disagree
Again, having dragged his nation to the World Cup single-handedly, he’s been let down by team-mates.
Messi would have World Cup (2014) and Copa America (2016) medals hanging from around his neck were it not for Gonzalo Higuain’s wayward finishing.
Then, as blasphemous as this might be in certain quarters of Argentina and Naples, the Diego Maradona comparisons become moot.
At this World Cup Messi has been let down by his entire supporting cast.
Willy Caballero possesses the authority of a substitute teacher fresh out of training taking class for the first time.
Argentina’s defence specialise solely in hospital passes and mistimed tackles, while coach Jorge Sampaoli permeates energetic nerves from the sidelines.
But it’s in midfield where Messi suffers the most.
Messi’s supply line of Enzo Perez and Maximiliano Meza wouldn’t, or in Perez’s case didn’t, cut it in a mid-table La Liga side, let alone at the World Cup.
Javier Mascherano gives his all but no longer has the legs to compete at the top level. In fact it’s a mark of Argentina’s poverty of midfielders that he even makes the squad.
The midfielders most capable of breaking the lines- Ever Banega and Giovani Lo Celso- were left on the bench against Croatia while injury robbed Manuel Lanzini of a World Cup spot.
By contrast, Cristiano Ronaldo- who it should be pointed out plays in a completely different position to Messi- currently has the intelligent central duo of William Carvalho and Joao Moutinho feeding him.
All of which begs one question: How different would Messi’s international career have been if he was born in the previous era?
Not possible, unless NASA are hiding something special up their sleeves, but a tantalising thought nonetheless.
Imagine if Messi played for Argentina during the late-Nineties and early-Noughties, a time when Argentina couldn’t move for masterful playmakers.
Juan Sebastian Veron, Juan Roman Riquelme, Matias Almeyda, Ariel Ortega, Marcelo Gallardo, Pablo Aimar… the list goes one.
Then you throw in the snarling presence of Diego Simeone and the last of the great Argentine defenders in Walter Samuel and Roberto Ayala.
Messi would have been happier than a pig in shit, rather than the goat amongst shit he is now.
Messi would also have avoided being bombarded with the tiresome Ronaldo comparisons whenever he excelled or struggled.
As it is, Messi looks set to leave the international stage with a trail of lingering doubts.
There will now forever be the detractors who claim Maradona did more for his country than Messi ever did, or that Ronaldo’s Euro 2016 triumph marks him out as The Greatest™.
The near misses will be forgotten about and advocates on both side of the Team Messi divide will instead turn to cold, hard facts- as they do with the ‘original’ Ronaldo.
Despite defining a generation, people will always ask ‘what if?’ when the topic of Messi and Argentina arises.
What if? The most useless question in football.