Neil Humphreys: The end of a flagging Lionel Messi looms large
Argentinian legend must deliver against Brazil to hold off retirement
The greatest of all time isn't really helping his greatest supporters.
Lionel Messi isn't propping up the romantic narrative about himself.
He's not playing well.
At a Copa America that has often been less entertaining than a washing machine's spin cycle, Messi is hanging us out to dry.
He's messing with his own cover story, the one about the rose among thorns, the G.O.A.T. among donkeys.
The right player in the wrong team felt so unfair, so much so that he's usually been given a pass.
Robert Downey Jr wouldn't look Oscar-worthy in an amateur production staged in at a Community Centre.
Why should we expect anything more of Messi with Argentina, particularly as he prepares to face hosts Brazil in the Copa America semi-finals this morning (Singapore time)?
But the eternal defence of the disadvantaged genius holds only if the disadvantaged one is playing like a genius.
One goal in the tournament, from the penalty spot, only tells half the story, after a number of half-empty performances, according to the man himself.
"I am not having the (Copa America) I had hoped," he admitted after Argentina's 2-0 quarter-final win over Venezuela.
"The important thing is that we won."
The second line was actually the more significant one.
The important thing is to win, obviously, but Argentina won't defeat Brazil with a peripheral Messi.
He shrugged off his personal disappointment and focused on the collective achievement, presumably knowing that the two can't be separated in the semi-final.
Argentina can't overcompensate again for a flagging legend.
The 32-year-old continues to labour in a transitional squad who bend themselves out of shape to accommodate their ageing master.
Coach Lionel Scaloni still tinkers with his formation as he tries to solve competing problems.
He's got a couple of old attackers up front, in Messi and Sergio Aguero, 32 - neither of whom is setting the Copa America on fire.
So Scaloni has handed his rising star, Lautaro Martinez, the thankless task of fetching and carrying for his illustrious colleagues while scoring the goals that they are not. Luckily, Martinez is succeeding.
Meanwhile, Argentina grapple with their defensive shortcomings.
Against Venezuela, Juan Foyth played at right-back for the first time in his international career as Scaloni fortified his defence.
It delivered a clean sheet, but denied Messi the ball too often.
Argentina's performance improved, but mostly in spite of Messi, making it harder for Scaloni to justify building his tactics around the attacker.
In the past, an average Argentina won with the PlayStation version of Messi.
In the Copa America, they have reached the semi-finals with the more mundane variety.
It is as good a time as any for the PlayStation version to put in an appearance.
Two games stand between Messi and the end of The Asterisk.
If he wins his first silverware with his country at senior level, there can be no further accusations about a so-called unfulfilled career.
No further incentive is required.
But Messi has one anyway.
In theory, he has next year's Copa America in Colombia and Argentina, and possibly even the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (though if he has a shred of dignity, he should bow out long before that farce plays out).
But he'll be older, his team-mates younger and his national set-up no less dysfunctional.
He will get chances against Brazil, not many, but potentially enough.
Filipe Luis (33) and Dani Alves (36) are both on the wrong side of 30 and blessed and cursed with a teenager's impish enthusiasm for galloping over the halfway line.
There will be space behind.
Whether Messi finds it or not rather depends on which Messi turns up - the current Copa America incarnation or the more familiar PlayStation demi-god.
If it's the latter, then the underdogs have a shot.
If it's the lesser version, then the Albiceleste are going home, which is no legacy for a legend.
Whatever international exit Messi had planned, he deserves better than a limp departure against gloating Brazilians.