Argentina looks to Lionel Messi for a World Cup win : La última copa/The Last Cup After a falling-out with the Argentine national team and a shaky reconciliation, Messi eventually finds his way back to play at the 2021 Copa America for yet another chance at redemption. And then it's on to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, his last shot at the most coveted trophy. In the final chapter of Lionel Messi's journey, we catch up to the present. Our host Jasmine Garsd reflects on what a win would mean for Messi and for Argentina - and what it really takes to come home.

Lionel Messi is looking to win a World Cup — and acceptance from Argentina

Lionel Messi is looking to win a World Cup — and acceptance from Argentina

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María Jesús Contreras for NPR
Lionel Messi walks with the Argentina soccer team.
María Jesús Contreras for NPR

"Ni de aquí, ni de allá," is a popular phrase many bicultural Latinos know all too well.

It translates to "Neither from here, nor from there," and represents the complications that come from being a part of two distinct worlds. Existing in this limbo is tough enough to navigate on your own — but for someone like Lionel Messi, it's a challenge he's had to face on the world stage.

Though he's won seven Ballon d'Ors and is arguably one of the best soccer players of our time, proving himself as a champion to his own home country of Argentina has been a feat ever since he left for Europe at the age of 12.

He, like many other immigrants, just longed for acceptance in the country that made him. But what do you do when even that longing becomes out of reach?

Messi breaks up with Argentina

In Argentina, a Copa América win is almost just as valuable as a World Cup trophy. The tournament determines the champions amongst primarily South American countries.

Argentina has won a record 15 Copas, but when Messi and his team lost three consecutive tournaments, trust in Argentina's soccer savior had been nearly shattered. By the time they faced Chile in 2016, Argentina hadn't been Copa champions in more than two decades. This became the moment of redemption for Messi.

Lionel Messi reacts after he missed a penalty kick against Chile during the Copa America Centenario Championship match in 2016. Elsa/Getty Images hide caption

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Elsa/Getty Images

Lionel Messi reacts after he missed a penalty kick against Chile during the Copa America Centenario Championship match in 2016.

Elsa/Getty Images

And as quickly as the moment came, it was lost. Messi missed his penalty kick. Chile won — and Messi was broken.

As Messi was leaving the locker room, he muttered to reporters: "It's over. I'm done with this team. It's too many losses. I searched for it. It was all that I wanted. And now It's over."

This wouldn't be the first time Messi had to step away from the pressure of it all.

Argentina longs for their hero

Argentina collectively transformed their endless critiques of Messi into a sort-of longing of their own once he disappeared. Messi may not have been the champion they had hoped for, but he was theirs nonetheless.

Kids begged for the soccer icon to return, while subway stations in Argentina changed their announcement screens to, "No te vayas Leo." (Don't leave us Leo.)

He didn't leave for long, returning just months later with a simple message that basically said, "I only wanted to help. I love my country."

Messi ultimately wanted to keep Argentina happy.

"I think if you think of Argentina as a family, it's an unhappy family," said Simon Kuper, an author and columnist for the Financial Times. "And there's the prodigal son and he's gone away and they say, 'You're never here, you never call, you never write.' When you come back, you're never as golden as you are when you're away. And so the prodigal son feels this responsibility to make the Argentinean family happy."

His return didn't exactly result in immediate fanfare from Argentines. Argentina failed to secure a win in the 2018 World Cup, which led Messi to once again take a break from the national team.

At this point, any hope for a win from Argentina was all but lost. That is, until a new coach entered the picture.

A new sense of belonging

Lionel Messi and coach Lionel Scaloni embrace after winning the 2021 Copa America tournament. Nelson Almedia/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Nelson Almedia/AFP via Getty Images

In 2018, Argentina brought in substitute coach Lionel Scaloni. He was young, not very well known and had spent most of his career abroad in Europe. Many Argentines saw this combo as a poison pill for the national team. Like Messi, Scaloni was also seen as an outsider. So not only did he understand Messi's struggle, he lived it.

Scaloni told NPR during a press conference that he wanted to create a sense of belonging on the team. In order to do that, he assembled players that were not only great individually, but were even greater as a team. Most of them also had one very important thing in common: Most players — like both Messi and Scaloni — had left Argentina as teens and played for European clubs.

"You idealize your land, you idealize playing for your national side," said sports writer Guillem Balagué. "So those that have left early in their lives, they have Argentina in their hearts, and that shows in the way they play for the ball and the way they play to get it back. And when they have it — what they do with it."

Messi was no longer the outlier who was playing for a country he longed for. They all were. And there was no better moment to prove themselves than the 2021 Copa América.

A champion is reborn

Brazil were the hosts, and the final match was between Argentina and Brazil. With an inexperienced coach and history of losses, all odds were against Argentina. Argentines themselves didn't get their hopes up.

"It felt like this was another opportunity to fail for Argentina," said Felipe Cardenas, a writer for The Athletic.

But in a twist of fate and skill, Argentina was quick to take the lead just three minutes into the game, and they managed to hold onto that lead.

Argentina's Lionel Messi kisses the trophy after winning the 2021 Copa America tournament. Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images

Argentina's Lionel Messi kisses the trophy after winning the 2021 Copa America tournament.

Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images

After years of discoordination and relying on Messi far too much, the team finally played as one unit — all while having a genuinely good time in the process.

Seconds after the referee blew the final whistle, Messi fell to his knees and sobbed. With a final score of 1 to 0, Argentina had finally reclaimed the champion title they longed for.

Hope for Argentina was renewed, but faced a minor setback after they faced an unprecedented loss against Saudi Arabia last week. But thanks to recent wins against Mexico and Poland, Messi still has a chance to do what he's always dreamed of: making his home country proud.

Messi isn't just fighting for a World Cup this year — he's fighting to belong. And though his former home is never quite the same each time he returns, it's that longing that may just drive him to take that coveted trophy home for the first time in his life.

Listen to The Last Cup on Spotify or Apple Podcasts to follow the rest of Lionel's journey to soccer stardom, and read about what Lionel Messi's saga says about the meaning of "home" in Episodes 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Escucha a La Ultima Copa en español en Spotify o Apple Podcasts.

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