Messi conquers the U.S.A. Now what?

“I watched about half of that game yesterday. That penalty kick was incredible!”

This is what a colleague said to me on Wednesday morning, after Argentina dismantled the U.S. in Copa America competition. It’s as eloquent a statement as any you might see on the Messi Effect. Pedants will scoff, say that it wasn’t a penalty kick, etc, etc. But a person who doesn’t give a damn about football, who only knows the game as this thing little Europeans play and that his colleague is nuts for, watched a match.

And here’s the thing: It wasn’t that the U.S. was playing. It was that Messi was playing. Once word got out that Messi would play the group stage match in Chicago as a sub, people started asking me about tickets, and whether they should go. My answer, that “Duh, it’s just about the best national team in the world right in your backyard,” was insufficient, because it was all about Messi. Americans love celebrity. What’s more, Americans love extraordinary things. It has often been said, as a quip, that the U.S. would really do better with royalty, which is funny even as it stings a little bit because of its truth. The celebrity obsession is rather odd.

The decision to hold the Copa America Centerario in the U.S. was a good one in many contexts, even as its overall effect is still to be determined. Football in America is in an odd state. The U.S. hosted the World Cup in 1994 and nothing much came from it. Over time, as the U.S. men’s team has gone from joke to legitimate, more people have paid attention to the game. But the real driver of interest in the U.S. is youth soccer. When kids started playing it, and adopting Euro or South American superstars as idols, parents started paying attention. They went to exhibitions and watched on TV. When the U.S. women became the powerhouse that they now are, interest surged further, because Americans love a winner.

The other really cool thing has been the very intelligent strategy adopted by MLS, the American professional league. From franchise placement to controlled growth and a spot on national television, MLS has done extraordinarily well. The average European or South American would scoff in looking at the sliver of market share and viewership the league enjoys, but the picture of sport in America is baseball, American football, basketball, hockey, stock car racing, then the primary sport of someone’s college. For MLS to have gotten the foothold that it has is, in that environment, remarkable. And it isn’t just immigrants and expats that are driving the contextual popularity of the game.

Anecdotes aren’t the only evidence. The 2014 World Cup set viewership records for both ABC, the parent network and ESPN, the host cable network. The final set a record, as did nine other matches. Quite clearly, something is happening with the game in the U.S.

But those people, the ones who know and follow the game, already know who Messi is. Most surprising about my colleague’s Wednesday morning gushing is that he probably doesn’t even know what country Messi hails from, and couldn’t pick an Argentina shirt out of a lineup. But he watched football, and he watched Messi. Argentina had to draw the U.S. in the semi-finals of a tournament that is based in the U.S. There wouldn’t have been the same audience if Argentina had met, say, Ecuador. And Messi destroyed the U.S., along with his Argentina teammates. Zero shots. Period. Not even speculative blasts from distance. Zero shots, and a 0-4 scoreline that could have been more if Argentina was really interested in rubbing noses in it.

MOTM in three matches — he only started two of them — Messi has a flair for the dramatic. The game’s biggest player is delivering transcendent performances not only on a big stage, but a crucial one. There is always the hope that football will become a real sporting player in the U.S., by the governors of the game in this country but also by the international forces, who have visions of money dancing in their heads as they contemplate a nation that large, with that much disposable income. But something had to happen to do that. Messi might be that thing.

The World Cup, viewership boosts aside, wasn’t the thing because that was a TV experience. The matches weren’t here, so the buzz was different. Americans love being able to see their superstars, even ones they don’t quite understand the fame of. They could see That Person, and he delivered. In Chicago, he entered the match in the 60th minute. Less than a half-hour later he had a hat trick, including a sublime free kick, and an assist of casual glory. Those highlights were on U.S. television sporting segments because the Copa was here, and even if we didn’t quite know what the hubbub was, a major international tournament was here, as was the best player in the game. And then he did that. He even makes a lie of the cliche that “Soccer is boring. They never score.” He has helped Argentina score goals in bunches.

As Messi goals go, his Chicago tallies weren’t all that dazzling, more evidence of Messi doing what he does. The semi-final match against the USMNT was different, because American exceptionalism and this country’s love of the underdog combined to make people not understand that the U.S. team didn’t have a chance against Argentina. One friend asked if there was any way that the U.S. could win, and I said “No. They won’t even come close to scoring.” This was difficult for him to understand, because there is an embrace of the underdog, but also a lack of understanding that a U.S. team can be an underdog. “We’re the best, richest nation in the world. So how can we not be the best? I don’t understand.”

Argentina destroyed the U.S., which was no surprise. What was a surprise was that Messi free kick. American sport has an iconography, defined by great athletes doing remarkable things at remarkable times. Michael Jordan took off from the free throw line in a slam dunk contest. Joe Montana’s Super Bowl touchdown pass. It’s electrifying when a great does something transcendent. Even if Americans don’t understand football, they understand that. This makes Messi’s free kick a potentially historic moment in the history of football in America, and that is stunning. What is even more remarkable, and the thing that also has made Messi electric in his presence here, is that he is the exceptional underdog.

Walter Mitty is the classic dreamer, the little man with big dreams. The greatest thing about Messi is that he doesn’t look like a great athlete. He isn’t tall or muscular. He doesn’t leap or run like the wind, nor does he have matinee idol looks. He’s just … this guy, which makes him even more of a phenomenon. Parents can turn to their soccer-playing children and say, “See, if he can do it,” and the child nods. Messi is exceptional, but he is also ordinary. The overall effect and buzz wouldn’t be the same if Ronaldo was doing that stuff in the U.S. because, just look at him. Those abs. That hair. Those legs. Americans would find Ronaldo’s feats cool, but not as cool as Messi’s. To understand this, look no farther than the meteoric rise of Steph Curry.

Curry is a star basketball player and the MVP of the league he plays in. What Curry does, essentially, is shoot the ball better than anyone in the game. He isn’t a giant. He’s kinda thin, chews nervously on his mouthpiece when he isn’t playing, and people absolutely adore him. He’s another example of ordinary exceptionalism, like Messi.

What overall effect the presence of the Copa and Messi will have, long-term, remains to be seen. My colleague might never watch another football match in his life. But on a Tuesday night, he tuned in to watch. And it wasn’t because of the U.S. team. It was because of Messi, a player who is better at what he does than anyone doing anything right now.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

29 Comments

  1. dl
    June 22, 2016

    Well, that was a remarkable experience (watching the game). To use a basketball analogy, it was like a mid-table college team playing the Golden State Warriors. Simply no comparison between the two, and the most damning stat I saw was that we had ZERO shots in the match. Not zero shots on target, rather zero shots. Period.

    My feeling, and this was shared by my Argentine wife, was that ‘soccer’ is just another game we play in the U.S., whereas for Argentina (and Spain and Germany and Brazil and Peru and Algeria and and and ) it is LIfe Itself. We have a truly fundamental emotional/spiritual change needed in the way the entire nation relates to soccer before we can begin to compete at the highest level. And honestly I don’t see that ever happening.

    Another impression I had was that our team looked like lumbering giants compared to Argentina. Our approach (and it works within the limited crucible of the MLS) is that big strong physically powerful people will naturally have an advantage, and as we saw yesterday that is obviously untrue. A lower center of gravity is very often (not always, of course) a real advantage, and raw speed is generally less useful than explosive speed and the ability to quickly change direction. The players on the field were — in very general terms — cut from the same cloth as several other major U.S. sports (basketball, baseball, football, etc.).

    We are so used here to thinking bigger stronger faster will win the day, and in American football it very often is a major factor. But I don’t want to emphasize too much the physical limitations of the average U.S. player, counter-intuitive though they may be. Without question the major problems are tactical, skill levels, bench depth, and more than anything emotional relationship to the game. We are AT LEAST 50 years away from anything that could approach Spain, Argentina, Germany, Italy, and it could only happen with the undivided attention and passion of the nation, sustained for generations. Klinsy ‘said’ as much in his post-match conference.

    • June 22, 2016

      Post-match, people were blowing Klinsmann grief, but I don’t see it. The USMNT is defo improved. I can watch them without wanting to gouge my eyes out. They’re becoming legit. Argentina would have kicked the crap out of anybody the way they played yesterday.

      Without the nation’s best athletes choosing football as a path, not much will ever happen. As you correctly note, it’s a game vs a sport/way of life. Our Chicago Fire beat reporter made more than many of the players. Hard to entice the best and brightest when you ain’t payin’ jack.

      I suspect that the game will find a level, then sit there. It still has some growth, but I don’t see a ton more unless a significant cash infusion hits MLS. More money=better pro future=better athletes. The system can identify talent, but getting that talent to stick with the program, go through all that then make $50k per annum is pretty much a non-starter. That keeps it as a game, that people play in high school and college then jettison as grownups, rather than a life/career.

  2. Jim
    June 22, 2016

    Well that’s just brilliant !

    Ronaldo gets through and England get Iceland. Spain face a difficult tie against Italy and to top it all my second referendum in as many years tomorrow. Not a great week.

    Only bright spot might be the ROI if they can somehow see off France next Monday. Even if not we get a chance to hear their anthem sung again . Tonight I reckon they even shaded my favourite singers, the Italians.

    • June 23, 2016

      If Portugal manage to pass through Croatia, then he has an easy route to the final. Unbelievable.

    • Jim
      June 23, 2016

      Hmm, no footie tonight so I’m left looking at the a referendum results. At this point looks like an exit is a distinct possibility and this would be huge for Europe so forgive the off topic post ( delete if unacceptable, mods)

      However, looking on the bright side If we get the borders up quickly we could maybe stop some of the English fans getting back in but more worryingly I might be heading for my third referendum in as many years. All this and I’ll have to watch Mr Trump on my TV tomorrow telling us he’s saved one of my favourite golf courses and citing this referendum as support for his views – as well as the pound diving. Oh well, maybe Spain can lift my spirits next week

      Luis, where are you ? I need some of your gloom to make me feel it could still be worse 🙂

    • June 24, 2016

      I didnt think there would be Brexit, nor did I think the effects would be so quick. Am supposed to leave to my wife’s place, France, next week and also visiting UK for a few days in July for a friend’s wedding. I had saved up some money to change to Euros and Pounds and normally I do this only a couple of days before. And feck, in just a few hours Pound has fallen like more than 10%. Already my INdian Rupees is ‘nothing’ when we travel abroad, and this has just been big blow to my spend. I cant believe that I was so stupid, hoping Brexit wont happen, not changing my cash a day earlier.
      We will be driving up to Edinburgh Jim, are you anywhere there?

    • Jim
      June 24, 2016

      You and me both. . . . Now we’re looking at the possibility of another referendum to leave the UK as Scotland voted decisively in favour of staying. Sometimes I despair of my neighbours south of the border.

      We’re about 60 miles north of Edinburgh, Fotobirajesh. It’s a lovely, lovely city. You’ll enjoy it there. Might just be possible for me to pop down there for a quick drink although we have a family holiday in July. If you email me at jimhyndaticloud.com with the dates you will be there we can have a look.

    • June 24, 2016

      Thanks Jim. Will definitely do. Our friend mentioned the dates for Edingbugh as 14/16 July. I dont have any details though as its her plan. I will email you at least a week before. It would be nice to meet. But please do not take any troubles. perfectly understand, if you cant make it…

  3. bwullur
    June 22, 2016

    Messi did not play against US soccer team, its too easy for him. He won the most difficult match ever, which is against his hype. Not many people can do it. That is the thing that separates a legend from a TV made superhero.

  4. June 23, 2016

    Kevin, I wish I could translate this to my local langauge and send to a daily news paper – whose subscription runs into many millions, who today made an article on Messi because of the US match. The only issues is, these local writers are still obsessed by what Maradona did in 1986 and for them the WC glory is the crowning glory. In todays article, this writer even goes on to say how Sabella and Messi had ‘issues’ between then, and how finally Messi has become a team player. The latter is an atrocious thought, as we all know.

    Such a pity that when everything was finally coming into place, Augusto and Rojo got injured, especially the former’s injury is going to affect Argentina badly as their long time prayers to have a good box to box mid fielder looked answered with August.o.

  5. mr.undercover
    June 23, 2016

    Yea! That’s really sad, but I think Bigilia can replace him in that department, and his passes are more accurate than Augusto. Let’s hope this final won’t be a deja vu of last year, messi would be heavily marked and he would be creating chances inside the Box, it left for the like of higuain and aguero to make amends of their previous awful performance.

    • June 23, 2016

      Biglia cant replace Augusto. If yes, Messi would not have played like a defensive midfielder in the last copa. Its like finally Argentina got a box to box midfielder after long and together with the performance of Banega, their mid field had finally clicked. I hope Tata will ask Banega to go a bit deeper and play De Maria ahead of him in the mid field.
      De Maria, at the same time may not be fully fit . It is stunning, during these games when he was absent, Argentina didnt make many atrocious decisions in the final third, not losing ball unnecessarily (except for Lamela making a De Maria decision in the 77th minute against USA). Yet, it would be better that De Maria starts , than him coming in as a 3rd sub and then getting injured forcing to team to play with 10 man. Dont know how Tata is going to manage this situation. Gaitan also could play in place of Augusto. But..
      What a pity, when their 11 looked set, these injuries. Both Rojo and Augusto injuries might have been because of 2 games in 3 days, these 2 being really the runners down the pitch.

    • June 24, 2016

      Ok Argentina bench would be really week on Sunday. De Maria, Pastore, Augusto and Lavezzi all definitely out. Rojo and Gaitan in doubtful state!!!!
      Out of the remaining players in the squad, 2 are goal keepers too..
      What a mistake it was to keep injured Pastore in (when he was injured even before arriving in US! not a single minute yet) and avoiding players like Dybala.
      But the eleven available players are in great spirit and looks determined.

    • June 25, 2016

      Now Banega joins the injury list. They are truly jinxed.

  6. Jim
    June 25, 2016

    Well, just spent three hours of my life watching two of the worst matches I’ve seen in a long time. The only thing which might redeem my lost time is the demise of Ronaldo at the end of this.

    • Davour
      June 25, 2016

      No redemption, sir… Ronaldo seems to have been praying plenty and for some reason, fortune complies. To reward Nani’s weak attempt at a shot is just silly. But for the boredom of this game, I wish both could just be thrown out (I didn’t catch Wales’ win). Let’s once and for all abandon the sentiment than Portugal is an attacking-minded team. No siree Bob they ain’t…

  7. Jim
    June 26, 2016

    Well, it wasn’t to be for ROI, and you have to say France stepped up and played a good second half. I suppose it was always going to be tough for them with only three days recovery instead of seven. Points to take out of it for me were Pogba is a good talent but he’s only that at the moment I’d want about €50m change from a €100m fee, France’s back four just isn’t good enough to win a tournament and I’m left with the dilemma of who to support when they play England ( as they must, surely?) not even watching Germany as it has to be one sided.

    Ok, dilemma over . Allez Les bleues !

    I’m also suffering from the demise of Barcastuff’s Twitter account. I’m totally out of touch with our side. What are the transfer mutterings and in particular, any word on Samper ? Renewed, loaned, leaving? Has Neymar stopped partying yet ? Any suggestions for good places to get my Barca news ? I can’t stand ESPN’s site. On my iPad it mangles everything.

    And in the time it has taken to type this Germany have scored. …

    • Davour
      June 26, 2016

      Last I heard of Samper was he is to join the first team’s pre-season and then a decision will be made.

  8. Jim
    June 26, 2016

    Thanks. I’d heard that but then I also heard he was going off on loan and, lastly, that he wasn’t gonna renew until he knew what the club’s plans were for him because nobody had spoken to him about it. Happy if the case is still that he does pre season with the firsts.

  9. Ryan
    June 26, 2016

    Hard to watch this Argentina lose their third straight final in as many years. What will it take for them to get over the line and finally win a trophy? And the shootout started so well, with Romero saving the first Chile shot.

  10. G6O
    June 26, 2016

    I see people reporting that Messi said he is retiring from the NT…

  11. Davour
    June 27, 2016

    That is just heartbreaking – Messi scored last time, and they lost; misses this time, and they lose. It does not seem to matter what he does. The team did not look good at all, to me. Chile, despite not creating much, looks much more like a team united. It amazes me to the core how these supposedly great players keep failing to deliver in the NT – Higuain again misses a golden chance, Aguero squandering (though also produced a great header where Bravo saved the day for Chile), Di Maria sloppy. Messi did not have his finest game, but did enough. Masch was imperial.

    So, apparently Messi is retiring – though I do not think this will be the case, at least no if there is a change in AFA (which would also be a nice excuse to return, after a reform). Obviously he feels gutted, and understandably he feels he cannot do more than he has done. It is a shame he never got to have a legendary coach to manage the team (no critique against Tata, but he was/is not that), nor teammates who, frankly, were good enough as a team. There is an absurdity that this player, who has produced such magic for over 10 years straight, will have to endure this bullshit.

    I hope he will find his way back to play a final WC, though I can’t imagine the pressure should they reach the final again. Perhaps he is just tired of that negative impact. No more fun, only demands.

    Either way, Messi no playing for NT is good news for Barcelona. Had he not, this season would have been much less shaky.

    • Chiu
      June 27, 2016

      Good news for FC Barcelona, he would fully focus on winning titles with us. He could potentially give us another 4-5 glorious seasons (la liga and CL) before he fully retired from football..

  12. barca96
    June 27, 2016

    What a sad day. It’s such a mess. Poor Messi. Before the final I said he should retire (I never expected them to win in the first place). But now that he has actually said it, I think he should give it one more time in Russia 2018. At current rate, they will go far but they won’t win. But when I think of the many young talents they have coming up, I am excited. However it’s just the attacking talents such as Correa, Dybala, Vietto and Icardi. Their main problem is always the defence and midfield.

    What is the reason for Messi’s dissatisfaction with the AFA? Can’t be just because of flight delays. There must be something going on in the background. Could it be the lack of support from the AFA from the continuous attacks from Maradona? Does he want a change in the manager?

    Last time there was a rumor of him leaving (transfer or retire), he brought the elections earlier. But that is club football, it’s quite different to international football where the players just come and play once in a while.

    Speaking as a Barca fan, I prefer Messi to call it quits and focus his energy in Barcelona but this way he can never win (doubt it but at least he go far again in 2018) a WC and therefore his detractors will always claim that he can’t be the best because of the lack of a winners medal.

    Other great players have retired from NT team only to return for a major tournament in the past. The last one that I can recall is Zlatan. I am sure there were a few others but I just can’t recall at the moment. Anyone remembers?

    • Davour
      June 27, 2016

      It must be tough, giving it all for a country that keeps depreciate you. Maradona is a major dick; I suspect he really does not want Leo to fully succeed, as this would devalue his own legacy as the greatest. Everything he (Diego) has done points towards this. The world keeps comparing Leo and Cristiano – well, compare how they are treated by their countries. You never hear anything but support for CR, and you rarely hear anything but pressure and doubt for Messi. Valdano’s comment on Messi playing finals to be forgiven is spot on. Disgraceful, to treat a man like that.

      Oh, how I wish Leo had gone for the Spain option…

  13. June 27, 2016

    What a heart break and following it up with the Messi declaration.
    The moment I saw DeMaria was starting, I felt really mad and negative and his game simply substantiated my fear. Add to it, Tata seemed to have asked Banega to play towards the left with DeMaria!!! Banega who played so well in the centre, was looking more towards the left!! excellent.
    I was very worried about the lack of Augusto F, and by bringing back Biglia,
    Argentina lost their midfield, and that was clear when Chile looked better even with a man difference! Tata made sure Argentina played the same defensive game like in 14 and 15 (a team who attacks through out a tournament playing defensive in the finals is very Argentinian it seems)
    And DeMaria, like expected, played absolutely non existant and stupid, when he got moments!!!
    We could see from how Messi tried to do things by himself, that he had lost hope of help from his team!!
    Before the match I was worried about 2 major things, Augusto and the Ref – when I knew it was a Brazilian!!! and what a feck up this man did. He could have not shown the 2nd yellow to chile player and just shown an yellow to Rojo.. Instead he decides to show a yellow to Messi – who definitely had contact, but was not diving, but was falling down for sure. Messi looked quite disturbed after that.
    For some reason, I was thinking Leo would miss his penalty and there goes that too..
    Incredible it was.

  14. raj
    June 27, 2016

    Incredible indeed! Heartbreak for millions (probably billions)

  15. raj
    June 27, 2016

    Messi’s announcement is absolutely the right thing to do after what he has gone through, at least politically – “If you want me back, ask nicely and say please!”

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