So that’s it. Lionel Messi has quit international football. We’ll never see him lift the World Cup. Not even the Copa America. His tears at the end of the Copa America Centenario final defeat to Chile should have brought heartbreak to all lovers of football.
You would imagine that, like say the break up of the Beatles, this would have been news mourned around the world. But sadly, we know that’s not how modern-day, social media-driven football fandom works.
The vultures had been circling long before he ballooned his penalty into the New Jersey sky, and with it Argentina’s hopes of cup glory.
There was something profoundly melancholic about Messi’s decision, and even sadder about the glee it was received by certain sections of an ungrateful public, frankly undeserving of his genius.
"For me, the national team is over," he said, like a man who had expected to utter these words all along. "I've done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion."
"It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn't get it, so I think it's over.”
Even if those words were said in the heat of the moment, as many have speculated, the reaction to his decision in so many quarters will hardly inspire a u-turn any time soon.
Imagine if the public reaction to the Beatles splitting up had been “good riddance”. No wonder Messi has had enough of international football.
Alone, the greatest
Today, by any measure, Messi stands alone as the world’s greatest footballer. Eight La Liga titles, four Copa del Rey wins, and four Champions League medals with Barcelona. There are an astonishing 453 career club goals and the record 55 strikes for Argentina. Oh, and just the five Ballon d’Or awards.
It’s enough to turn certain rivals green with rage.
So good has Messi been that he is now understandably judged by his very own set of standards. Standards rewritten on a weekly basis, with newer and more unrealistic ones plucked out of thin air for no other reason than to keep up with his outwordly deeds on the football pitch.
Can he continue to strive without the mentorship of Pep Guardiola? Could he perform in a lesser team than Barca? Is he too dependent on Xavi and Andres Iniesta? Has the presence of Neymar and Luis Suarez diluted his influence? Is he a true leader of men?
Nonsense, of course, but nonsense that gets peddled week after week.
And when all failed, there was the daddy of all doubt-casters. Can he truly be called the greatest player of all time without emulating Diego Maradona’s World Cup heroics with Argentina?
Quite when, or why, this became an accepted legacy-decider is not clear. Worse still, it is as much an inconsequential argument as it is tedious. Messi’s performances in the Champions League, widely accepted to be of higher standard than the World Cup, should have put that debate to bed years ago.
Listen to Messi’s detractors and you’d think Maradona, admittedly head and shoulders above his teammates in 1986, somehow managed to single-handedly drag Argentina to World Cup glory while surrounded by barely-functioning imbeciles.
Never mind that in Carlos Bilardo – who popularized the 3-5-2 style of play – Maradona and co were led by one of Argentina’s most innovative and respected coaches, a privilege Messi has seldom enjoyed.
Or that in the likes of goalkeeper Nery Pumpido, Real Madrid’s Jorge Valdano, and World Cup final goalscoring hero Jorge Burruchaga, Maradona had a trustworthy, compact group of soldiers that complimented his undoubted mastery and allowed him to flourish.
Today, the opposite is true for Messi. Argentina may have a gifted group of players, but they remain a poor team, badly coached, and disastrously overseen by a corrupt, incompetent Argentine Football Association. Not even the world’s greatest player can overcome such dysfunction.
Carrying the weight
And did Messi really fail with Argentina? Surely haul of three finals in three years, and four in total, is an achievement to be celebrated, not berated. Clearly he’s had enough of the heartache, and criticism, for now at least.
"I think there's a lot of people who want this, who obviously are not satisfied, as we are not satisfied reaching a final and not winning it,” he said.
Anyone watching the match against Chile would have sensed a sense of desperation in his play. Shockingly bereft of shape or any tactics, Argentina barely resembled a cohesive unit at all.
The plan seemed to consist of giving the ball to the captain and hoping for the best. Messi, visibly irritated by the mediocrity around him, had no option, time and again, but to take on three or four Chilean defenders at a time. It was not enough.
In “The End”, one of the last songs the Beatles every wrote, Paul McCartney memorably sang the line: “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, carry that weight, a long time”.
It’s the burden Messi must bear for the rest of his life for not winning a title with his country. Never mind Leo, go back to Barcelona, you’ll get all the love you need there.SHOW MORE