Updated November 22, 2022 at 11:47 AM ET

Listen to The Last Cup on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Escucha a La Ultima Copa en español en Spotify o Apple Podcasts.

This is Lionel Messi's last chance. And he's not off to a good start.

Messi's saga is one of the main stories of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. He is considered one of the best soccer players of all time. His career with FC Barcelona has been record breaking.

And yet, he has never been able to win a World Cup with his native Argentina.

The story of Messi is often told as that of a child prodigy who rose meteorically up the ranks of Barcelona in Spain. But the lesser known saga is that of Messi as a young immigrant, who yearned to go back home.

Messi was raised in the 90's, in the rural province of Santa Fe, Argentina's version of the midwest. He was brilliant on the field even as a child, but grappled with serious health problems (a hormonal growth deficiency). His family (dad worked at a steel mill, mother cleaned homes) could not afford treatment. By the early aughts, as Argentina spiraled into a severe economic depression, Messi and his father emigrated, along with hundreds of thousands of other Argentines.

In Spain, Messi received the best soccer education a young boy could hope for, at FC Barca's legendary academy, La Macia. As he began racking up the trophies, titles and cups for Barca's professional team, he also chose to play with Argentina's national team. This was a pivotal moment in his career: Spain wanted him to join their ranks, but he refused. He has often spoken of the homesickness he felt for Argentina, and how fervently he dreamt of returning to put on the blue and white jersey at international competitions.

It's romantic, but anyone who has left home knows, going back after a long time away, is complicated. For years, Messi's performance with the Argentina national team was nothing short of tragic. And the worse he played, the angrier people back home got. Fans demanded to know: why did he perform so well for Barca, in Europe, but so poorly for Argentina? There is a whole cottage industry of theorists and commentators dedicated to investigating the matter, who have suggested everything from Messi's own identity crisis being to blame, to the more plausible fact that Barca's team is simply better at supporting his genius.

The fact of the matter is, Messi has spent most of his career trying to win with Argentina, struggling to conquer the affection of his own people, and failing miserably at it.

That all seemed to change under the guidance of young new coach Lionel Scaloni, who carried Argentina into a historic victory at La Copa America in 2021 (that's a major South American Cup.) To say hopes were high for Messi and the Argentine team as they headed off to Qatar would be an understatement. The team was widely seen as a strong contender to make it far in the tournament. There was also a looming deadline: Messi, who is now 35 years old, recently announced this, was going to be his last World Cup.

Early this morning, Argentines woke up early to watch the team debut in Qatar against Saudi Arabia. It was widely seen as an easy victory. But the soccer world was shocked at what unfolded in the next 90 or so minutes: a 2-1 loss for Argentina.

This will go down as a historic upset by Saudi Arabia, who up until now were seen as an unimpressive contender.

Of course it's more than just about soccer, it always is. For Messi, what is at stake is not just another title under his belt. It's his chance to be a hero back in a homeland that has always shunned him. It's his last cup.

Listen to The Last Cup on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Escucha a La Ultima Copa en español en Spotify o Apple Podcasts.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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