The Copa America Centenario edition is done. History will remember Chile as the repeat winners in a repeat final with Argentina. That is not what is and will be making headlines, however. Lionel Messi has retired from international football after losing four finals over his career. You read right. Messi retired because the burden of Argentina has become too heavy a cross to bear…or so many believe.
Now, if this is the primary reason the disappointment would be understandable but the impact such a decision will have on his legacy could be huge. It won’t be positive; that’s for certain. Forget the claims of being the greatest ever footballer. He would have conceded ever being in the running the minute he decided it’s better to quit and return to the comforts of Barcelona where he probably has a 50% chance or greater of winning La Liga each year and will be a favourite for the Champions League the same. In Spain, the demands are not as great. Barcelona are so dominant that maybe 10-15 games will be really taxing and competitive each league season. It’s not the same as Argentina who, despite being the best collection of individuals in South America has been proven to be an inferior team to Chile. Much of this is on Messi and his own failings as a leader.
Even if Messi does what should be an expected U-turn on his retirement at 29, his legacy will take a hit. All the other players that people regard in the class of ‘best ever’ have done the business not only at club level, but also on the international stage. If this move isn’t politically motivated, and it very well could be, then the move is indefensible.
You can argue that he couldn’t handle more disappointment and he’s not loved in Argentina as much as his performances warrant. That’s no reason to quit, definitely not at just 29 and while still being the best player on earth. His comments sound defeatist. Those utterances are those of a mentally weak man who wilts when the going gets tough. He’s achieved everything there is to achieve at Barcelona, having had a near perfect situation in which to shine and to craft his legend. Full marks and deserved adulation for that.
The problem is not his overall performance with the national team. It’s not even winning a major title; it’s a team sport. It’s the manner of the losses and his own performances when it mattered most, not in the run-ups to the final. Being fair, there have been instances where he has been let down by teammates. He has let his teammates down also, though. Arturo Vidal missed Chile’s first penalty kick. If Messi had scored his penalty kick and not converted an extra point under pressure then Argentina would have been buoyed for the rest of the shootout. Seeing the captain and best player miss first up must have had some psychological impact on the rest and to be considered the best player to have ever played the game you must convert, you must separate yourself from the ‘humans’. History will remember that he gave up. People will say he made possibly the most cowardly decision in football memory. It would be better to continue trying and let historians decide at the end of the day. He’s made the decision for them.
This is Greatness
Lebron James taking the NBA finals by the scruff of the neck and doing the impossible against a record breaking Golden State Warriors 73-9 team was greatness. When it mattered most the best player stood tall and showed he’s more than skills. He was great then after leaving to help form a super Miami team and win. Redemption.
Zinedine Zidane has earned a legend that perhaps supersedes his actual career performance because of his ability to have game winning performances when it mattered most. He wasn’t one of the outstanding players in 1998 but two headers later and he’s mentioned by many as the best player ever. Fans wax lyrical about the man and it’s mostly based on those two headers against a technically brilliant Brazilian team.
Greatness is Tiger Woods holing out from the fairway when under immense pressure. Greatness is Usain Bolt beating a rampant and confident Justin Gatlin after doing nothing to suggest he could do so the entire season. All this came after almost falling flat on his face out of the blocks in the semi-final just two hours prior. The lack of these moments on the international scene will be what ultimately adjudicates Messi to be possibly the best player to have played the game but in no way the greatest. He’s not the greatest player from his own country. The moment he decided he couldn’t win with Argentina at only 29 years old he made many finally conclude that.
Will he return?
For his sake, he must. Nobody except those truly in the know will now for sure if the decision had other motivations. There are issues with the Argentinian FA being suggested. They have also been under heavy pressure from fans back home. All that is understandable but it comes with the territory. They have had chances to take the monkey off their backs and they’re the best South American squad boasting the best player. Messi has missed chances to break the drought. Gonzalo Higuain is highly culpable. Sergio Agüero was denied brilliantly by Claudio Bravo and skied another from close range. The response to adversity is performance, not quitting.
Once Messi’s emotions have calmed down and he rethinks the impact it will have on his image in Argentina, worldwide, and what it means for his legacy he will realise the decision is rushed. This is barring this being a case of irreparable damage from internal issues. Messi is simply too good a player to end his international career because he was tired of or couldn’t handle losing.
It’s a signal of weakness and a signal of lacking the mental fortitude for Argentina once things get tough. Critics will have a field day once they realise they apply this to club football and his not having played outside of Barcelona. The crazy suggestions that he couldn’t do it on a cold night at Stoke will be resurrected. Some who dismissed it will wonder just how crazy those far-fetched claims really were. As for his peers, Higuain, Agüero, Angel Di Maria etc., they appear to be enamoured with the Messi legend too much and their own performances suffer. There’s something different about the Argentina dynamic to the Barcelona one which makes so many world class players play inhibited around him.
Whatever it is, it has been a messy ending to the Copa America won by Chile. For his own sake and for the sake of football, let’s hope it isn’t the end of Messi for the Argentina national team. Place the captaincy responsibility on one who can handle it when he does return.