Inter Miami’s Messi faces Olympics, Copa América dilemma

As soon as the final whistle blew the Sunday before last, and Argentina‘s U23 side had beaten Brazil, the speculation started to spike. The win meant that Argentina had qualified for the Paris Olympics. Come the tournament, the U23 side can be bolstered by the presence of three over-age players.

Will Lionel Messi be among them?

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The idea of Messi playing the Olympics had been floated months before the qualification tournament had even taken place. The coach of Argentina’s U23 side is Javier Mascherano, a close friend of Messi after the time they spent together at Barcelona and on the national team. The two of them even won the gold medal together in Beijing back in 2008.

Might they be in harness once more, Mascherano in the early stages of his coaching career, Messi coming toward the end of his playing days?

The coach aired the idea of Messi going to the Olympics last October. It was a predictable question last Sunday in the postmatch news conference, and Mascherano expanded on the theme in an interview with TyC Sports. He revealed that Messi had sent a message congratulating him and the squad on achieving their objective. Mascherano added another veteran, Ángel Di María, into the mix and said that “as coach, I have the obligation to invite them to play the Olympics. But we understand that they have other commitments. It is not so easy.”

He is referring to the Copa América, which will take place in the USA shortly before the world’s sporting attention switches to Paris. It is not normal for a player to take part in both the Copa and the Olympics. But it is not impossible.

Last time around, striker Richarlison was part of the Brazil squad that reached the final of the 2021 Copa América. Just a few days later (from July 10 to 21) he was in action in Japan helping Brazil on their way to an Olympic gold. It was something of a surprise that Everton, his then club, allowed him to take part in both competitions — and he seemed to pay a price for such a heavy schedule, picking up injuries during the subsequent Premier League season.

Back in 2016, Barcelona had not allowed Neymar to double up. The club made it clear that it had to be one or the other. Neymar chose to sit out the Copa Centenario, and as a result, was free to take Brazil to their first Olympic gold medal.

But in the case of Messi, the situation is a little different. He will not be coming off a grueling European season. On the contrary, he should be relatively fresh after what, by the standards of the game’s cluttered global calendar, has been an extended period of rest. And so, even bearing in mind that he will turn 37 this June, from a physical point of view, it is possible to imagine him taking part in both competitions.

True, Inter Miami boss Gerardo Martino says that he will have to choose — as will midfielder Diego Gómez, the star of Paraguay’s Under-23 side. Perhaps. Then again, Messi has attained a status where he is sufficiently strong to make his own rules. What applies to Gómez may not apply to him. Messi’s commercial value to the club — highlighted by the recent Hong Kong debacle — gives him a certain leverage. But if we take Martino at his word and conclude that Messi can play either the Copa or the Olympics, then it might even be the case that the latter is more probable.

And now that the USA is getting a regular Messi fix with Inter Miami, it could be that his presence in the Copa América is not as important as it would have been if he were still in Europe. His absence from the Argentina team might even have benefits.

The sad but inevitable truth is that the end is not far away. Last time out, in November, Argentina won a historic victory away to Brazil in World Cup qualification. The result was better than the performance. Messi was admittedly some way short of full fitness. But against a Brazil side that ferociously squeezed space and pressed their opponents, for perhaps the first time in his international career, Messi looked like a luxury item.

With 15 minutes to go and with the game in the balance, he was replaced. Even in a moment of triumph, Argentina were forced to confront the vision of a Messi-less future — which may even have provoked the postmatch comments of coach Lionel Scaloni, when, with a surprisingly downbeat tone, he hinted at walking away.

There is no official word on when Messi’s time with the national team will come to an end. The closest we still have are his comments from last year, when he said that it was unlikely that he would feature in the next World Cup. Either way, Argentina need to plan for a future without him. The bane of the life of a national team coach is the lack of time he gets to spend with his players.

The Copa América, then, is an oasis, a full month where options can be expired and tests can be carried out. It might make sense for Scaloni to use the tournament to have a look at a lineup without Messi — and then there would be an added bonus if Messi shines in Paris and proves to himself that he will still be capable of tipping the balance in 2026.

Alternatively, he can bow out of the Olympics, receiving all due tributes without all of the fuss about the past overshadowing Scaloni’s need to build for the future.