Lionel Messi and the end of anguish

It was only at the end that we really knew how it all was, how it all felt.

It’s safe that nobody derived any pleasure from seeing Lionel Messi as emotional wreck, the stoic, calm player who seemed interested in nothing except family, PlayStation and killing opponents, brought low by failure. Over the years and countless moments, he held it all in until at the end, it was too much and the greatest player this game will ever see, was on the pitch almost in a fetal position.

Diego Maradona, the bloated, opinionated man whose legacy is burnished by a Great Lie, said that if the Argentina players didn’t win this Copa America Centenario — one that many scoffed at as a trumped-up money grab — they might as well not return home. The rant of a zealot has become reality.

When Messi walked up to the penalty spot, many suspected that he would miss, not because he’s a bottler, or plagued from the penalty spot, but because of the cruelty of sport. His international career seems, of necessity, to exist as a sepia-toned alternate universe to the vivid color of Messi’s club football career. If one is defined by success and accolades, storied teammates coming through time and again and victory parades, his Albiceleste life needs to be one of failure and teammates letting him down, time and again.

Maradona got his wish, one that, like many members of an England who chose Leave without fully knowing what they were in for, he would like to have back now. Because in this Copa America, Messi was magnificent in every essential way, creating, scoring, making teammates better, even gilding the lily with what might go down as the best free kick of his career. He did it all, emptied the tank. And then, after he skied his penalty kick in a match that should never have reached that point, it was too much.

He left a little bit of a window in his decision to leave the Argentina national team, throwing in that “how I feel right now” caveat that will give so many hope. The next World Cup will come, and he will be 31, old in the dynamic of the player who in one soul-stirring season scored more goals than anyone in history, but prime-time in the player he displayed at the Copa America. He might rescind his decision, might come back. Zidane did it, many other players have.

But we should hope that he doesn’t.

“My thinking right now and thinking about it in the dressing room, I’m done playing with the national team. I tried my hardest, it’s been four finals but I was not able to win. I tried everything possible. It’s hurts me more than anyone but it is evident that this is not for me.”

Messi left his home town of Rosario at age 10. The reason was not only to maximize his potential at FC Barcelona, but self-preservation. Even if he didn’t develop into the greatest footballer anyone has ever seen, the growth hormone treatments he was to receive would give him the fullest shot at a normal, healthy life. He came to Barcelona, developed and grew as both a person and a player, in many ways coming to his national team almost as an expat. His life was in Barcelona, he worked in Barcelona, lived in Barcelona and now, his children and companion are in Barcelona. He donned the Albiceleste when necessary and wore it with pride, that sweat-soaked symbol of a man working to make liars of those who said that his heart wasn’t really in it, that he wasn’t truly and fully Argentine. Match after match, playing hurt, playing surrounded by incompetence and indifference, playing this thing he loved that even when the vertical stripes changed colors and became a heavy, heavy burden.

Messi was everything to the Argentina national side. And perhaps this, too, got to be too much. A club football team can make purchases to fix problems, while a national team has what it has. Perhaps the seeds of doubt were sown when his club team acquired solutions in Neymar and Suarez, players that led to a treble and glory. Maybe, after returning from yet another international break riven by the fatigue that provided an assist in his beloved club team coming up short in a crucial match, seeds of doubt started to germinate.

An athlete is all about self-preservation. They choose trainers, training methods and diets. They recover in certain ways, do everything possible to ensure that their playing careers will be as long and productive as possible. It’s worth asking whether the desire to avoid unspeakable anguish isn’t also part of that self-preservation, that at some point a player gets off the psychological elevator of ups and downs. Messi had it particularly hard because of his decision to leave for Barcelona, second guessed and doubted at every turn. Even now there are stupid, stupid people who are saying that Messi quit because he failed, braying jackasses who have probably never failed at anything of consequence, people with no conception of the hopes and dreams of an entire nation riding on their action. Sport often makes people stupid, makes them say ridiculous things.

Messi is clutch. Messi is the greatest player in the game. We can’t even say that he is past it, since he unveiled a new player this season, re-emerging in a new, just as devastating form. Yet today, Messi is a player who, just maybe, made a difficult decision for no reason other than self-preservation, not physical but psychological.

When he missed than penalty shot, he was pale. While the teammates stood together, Messi stood apart, destroyed. A man who had done so much, scored absurd goals from absurd angles, couldn’t even put a ball into a huge net from a hop, skip and jump away. He wept, he sat, disconsolate, in a corner of the bench. He didn’t want to hide, but desperately wanted to be alone. He will believe that he failed his teammates. He will tell Higuain that his miss was part of the game even as he fails to forgive himself for that penalty miss. Many of us have watched Messi for his entire career, and have never seen him as devastated as he was during the Copa final. If you weren’t moved, you don’t have a heart.

We rip, tear at and shred our sporting heroes. We are over the moon when they succeed and merciless when they fail as fans live vicarious lives in the exploits of complete strangers. We neither forgive nor forget, even when we should do both. Messi’s own country ripped and tore at him, suggesting that he really wasn’t one of them, believing the lie that Maradona won a World Cup all by himself and holding Messi to an impossible standard.

In 2005, Messi was granted Spanish citizenship, and we can’t help but wonder what if, back in the day, he had placed his heart where his body and mind already were and decided to play for Spain. No abuse, no stress and he would have been part of those legendary Spanish teams that swept everything before them instead of a man without a country, killing himself for people who don’t appreciate him, who say that it’s always his fault, who deny him a sense of “home” in that truest sense, the unalloyed acceptance that comes from being part of a family.

At some point, everyone has enough, and says enough. The wreck that couldn’t watch the penalty shootout, that looked like a ghost during the trophy celebrations, is absolutely right to say, at long last, “Enough.” We can only speculate, because only Messi knows why he took the decision that he did. But maybe it isn’t a question of time, or player life span. Maybe it’s a question of anguish, and the toll it takes on someone who just wants to do a thing that they love in a state of grace rather than pain. And that’s okay.

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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.

12 Comments

  1. barca96
    June 27, 2016

    Looks like I’ve been Hectored.

    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?

    ps. Just bought an Argentina jersey last Wednesday. I guess I’m going to put it up on eBay now

    ps.2 I think that as a bait, Messi should request AFA to hire Diego Simeone. He’s the only manager that I can see getting them a WC. They simply need a strong manager. Simeone is going through a heartbreak as well, just like Messi so perhaps they both should sit down together and discuss what they can do to help Argentina. I know with Simeone on board team work will be much better. Please Simeone, one last hurrah for Messi in 2018.

    • June 27, 2016

      Hello, long time no see.
      AFA made an election and the number of votes casted was more than those present!!!
      Can you imagine Tata Martino not being paid for months, some say 6 or 7 months!! There must be many more issues. It is very clear players are not happy and Messi finally decided to speak out for all of them. I just felt, he decided to talk out at the wrong moment. He could have waited till the end of the finals. And definitely, there must be many many more issues, including coach selection et all. After last copa or so, there was reports about Masche having heated arguements with Tata etc.. AfA gets millions, making Messi play the stupid friendlies, but they hardly seem to support the team or Messi.

      Heart breaking scenes, after that match. The moment I saw DeMaria starting, I felt negative and with Higuains miss, I was pretty sure they were going to lose. I too felt, he was going to miss that kick, but not to sky it like that. May be seeing Bravo there might have upset him really(?)

      Am really scared to look at my local news papers tomorrow. All of them are die hard Maradona fans and they will shred Leo to peices.

  2. PPos
    June 27, 2016

    People rave about Maradonut like he won that World Cup by himself, but in the final he had burruchaga score. Higuain let Messi and Argentina down, once again. Not Leo. Messi always gave it his all, and it’s all come to a head. Argentinians are so fickle. Messi doesn’t deserve the way that the country treats him. It’s only criticism no support. Messi doesn’t enjoy himself when he plays for Argentina and it shows. I knew Argentina was never going to win anything with Martino. The guy is a loser. He showed it with us that season and keeps showing it with Argentina. Martino’s tactical nous is poor, and he showed it last night. Once again.

  3. amitojduggal
    June 27, 2016

    Argentine journalist Gabriel Anello: “Messi is a Spaniard. Let him stay in Spain. Us Argentines don’t want him and don’t need him.”
    Diego Maradona: “If you lose the Final, dont ever come back”
    Argentina fans: “Messi doesn’t sing the national anthem. He is Spanish”
    Messi’s family attacked by Argentinian fans during a game!

    No reasons for the guy to stay in Argentina’s national side.
    I so much wish Spain adopts him out of a miracle.

  4. Davour
    June 27, 2016

    Thank you for a wonderful piece about the player we all lover and admire and wish all the best for the joy he has given us. This really was on a different level of disappointment, anguish, as is noted above. I am not Argentinian and cannot understand where this resentment is coming from – some perverted, mythical nationalistic notion, is my guess – but it is hateful, ignorant and absurd.

    In my country, Sweden, Zlatan has of course been the centre of attention for his entire career. Some disliked him because his parents were born elsewhere, because his attitude was boisterous, “un-Swedish” – and he often failed to deliver in the national team, though many times he did. The combination between being loud and not always delivering was at times problematic. But all in all, he was loved and admired – he won (almost) everybody over with his talk and his walk. Maybe Messi did not talk enough, quiet as he is; maybe Maradona’s shadow was too big, reflecting a larger than life character of the machismo-mold, while Messi has been a larger than life footballer. But that has not been enough.

    He reportedly chose Argentina because he felt Argentinian. One has to wonder how – or what – he feels today.

    • Davour
      June 27, 2016

      And the reason, by the way, that Zlatan failed to deliver mirrors Messi’s: his team, like the team of this current Euro, is far from good enough. And they all looked to him. But these are minor players, not underperforming superstars like Messi’s teammates.

  5. G6O
    June 27, 2016

    Well, it has not been a good 24 hours for Barca players…

  6. chowzoi
    June 27, 2016

    We all know his story. How he left Argentina and joined Barça at 13. Even though he became an adult in Barcelona, he always felt Argentinian, kept his Argentinian accent and chose the Argentina NT instead of Spain because he loved his country. Unfortunately, his country didn’t feel the same about him. He deserted them, he was Spanish, he wasn’t Maradona. As a child you keep doing whatever is necessary to make those you love, in this case his country, love you. But as you mature, you eventually come to the realization that there is nothing you can do to make them love you. You tried everything. Did everything you thought they wanted you to do but it was never enough. Whatever is going on with the AFA, it was that heartbreak knowing he did his best but is wasn’t enough that we saw in Leo’s devastation last night.

    Jorge Valdano said that Messi doesn’t play finals (for Argentina) to win, he plays finals to be forgiven.

  7. socrates
    June 27, 2016

    We stayed up all night to watch Messi’s final accomplishment (surely), and were — like you all — devastated as he skied the penalty.
    A humiliation? No, absolutely not; that accomplishment goes to England, oh beautiful fate, Brexit consolidated. Great Iceland, more volcanoes than professional football players.
    Thus football balances tragedy with revenge.

  8. Kd
    June 28, 2016

    Hey Barca 96!!
    You wont believe this but thats exactly me and my friend discussed last afternoon. Messi is hurt, and so is Simeone. And unless a coach like Simeone guides Argentina its difficult to see them win the World Cup in 2018. Simeone would bring the team ethos and the tactical nous. And Messi with his x factor and the love he shall receive from Simeone would shine once again.
    Headlines today in India in the largest selling English newspaper was Messi quitting. Even in India. And god knows we arent a footballing nation by a mile.
    I dont know why you guys would want him to quit the Argentina NT, cos he deserves a chance for another World Cup. I sincerely hope he stays. We need him. The World needs him, sport needs him. I hope he decides to play for Argentina once again. And I fuckin hate Higuain. I cant stand him. How the hell does he keep missing all these one on ones on the biggest of occasions?? And why does Di Maria always injured in the middle of the tournament? Why is Aguero always injured coming into the tournament? And I always liked Tata, but even with him i’m losing all patience.
    I hope better sense prevails and his friends and family and well wishers coax him out of this silly premature retirement.

  9. dl
    June 28, 2016

    Fully support Messi (and anyone else) who chooses to retire from the national team. While it’s nice to play for the flag and if you win you and your country bask (for an instant) in glory, there is soooo very much passion wrapped up in international competitions that the pressure on the players and coaches is just ridiculous. Too many fans have invested far too much in their national teams, to a degree that is unhealthy for 1) fans; 2) players; 3) nations.

    Imagine an athlete who works incredibly hard all year playing for a club, then breaks it up regularly to fly across the world to play in a competition that has accrued so much baggage ( ‘national honor’, ‘legacy’, ‘will he be remembered as the best ever’, ‘do these players really care?’, ‘xyz is a worthless player and I hate him how dare he even put on a jersey’, etc etc etc). Where is the rest? Where does he get a chance to relax, enjoy his life, play with his kids, get out of the pressure of billions of people watching and expecting and judging?

    Remember most of these guys were just simple kids who liked to kick the ball. Some of them were dirt poor and this turned out to be a golden ticket. Others were just kids and happened to be lucky and talented. I think Messi more than any other player (well, Iniesta and some others do come to mind) seems to be a very well balanced person who loves to play soccer, and I see his decision to retire as exactly the kind of decision a very well balanced person who loves to play soccer would make. Huge respect. He’s given so much joy to the world, how could I not support him in this?

    • georgjorge
      June 29, 2016

      Great comment. Nowadays, athletes seem to be both something more than human and something less. They are adored for doing things almost all other humans cannot do, but at the same time they are denied even some basic human rights. They are not allowed to take a break from their job every now and then or aim for happiness by raising a child instead of by winning trophies. Personally, I find judgements like “he took the easy way out” or “he didn’t have enough discipline/will to succeed” highly questionable as they always come from people who haven’t exactly set new standards in anything (and I’m firmly including myself within this group!). Or maybe it’s an American thing, this “everyone can be everything but it’s his duty to TRY”.

      It’s fascinating – those people are among the most privileged persons in the world, both in regard to media attention and material gains, yet in some aspects they are also the poorest.

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