Messi has finally mentioned the “r word,” has even put something like an end date on it, saying that it will probably be when he’s physically no longer up to it, and he will know when that day comes. Even for those incorrectly translating it to a shelf life for greatness, that the end is nearer than any of us want or realize is now a reality.
What’s fascinating are the reactions of people to this news. You even have some Messi devotees saying that he can play until he’s 40.
No. He can’t.
The weird thing about athletic greats is that they make us selfish in different ways. We watch them, watch them diminish, convince ourselves that they aren’t diminishing all that much, that they have more in the tank and how dare people suggest otherwise. Messi gets the ball in the open pitch, and we try to block out the times when after that happened he accelerated and nobody caught him. We see him now being caught by players he used to leave kicking at air, and we ask ourselves how much longer. The injuries are more frequent, take longer to recover from and again we ask ourselves, how much longer?
In the excellent interview translation by Diana Kristinne, the Messi quote is:
“We’re at an age when it starts to get harder and that’s normal, but I can’t say ‘I’ll play until I’m 35 or 36. Maybe I can’t move at all and I don’t want to just be here, I want to be well and able to compete and help out.”
Puyol retired, kicking and screaming, more fire in the tank but burdened by a body that just kept breaking, a body that finally said, “Enough.” Player retirements are hard, and hard to do perfectly. Xavi’s was perfect. He was effective and useful, instrumental in helping the club that he grew up in win a treble. His retirement party was also a treble party. It’s very difficult to top that. Iniesta wasn’t as perfect, and he left a season later than he should have, but there wasn’t an option for that because even diminished Iniesta was still the best option most of the time. Sergio Busquets is closer to that time than we think, but none of them are iconic in the same way as Messi.
As a Chicago Bulls fan, Michael Jordan’s retirement was perfect. He was young, rich, healthy and walked away from the game like a boss. That he messed it all up by coming back was a shame, but that’s what being out of the spotlight does to an athlete. It makes them do what Sugar Ray Leonard did, walk away young and pretty, then return only to walk away again, older and battered, the way that most greats retire from the game that they loved. They’re unable to do it, and their pain is our pain. We don’t want them to leave, but we also don’t want to see them like that, and we struggle with that reality. Iniesta being buffeted about like a leaf in a windstorm in that Roma match was painful to watch, as bad as the outcome for those who followed the wee genius as he rose through the ranks at the only club he ever played for, until he went to Japan.
NFL great Jim Brown got retirement right. The running back was 30 years of age, and his last season, led the league in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns. He announced his retirement from the set of a film that he was working on, and never looked back. The people who say that he retired too young are misguided, but their view is in keeping with how we think of great athletes.
My selfishness about Messi wants him to retire pretty much right now. Right now, he’s still Messi. You still hold your breath when he gets on the ball, he still scores magnificent goals, is still the best player in the game. The trick to every great bit of theater, be it on a stage or the stage of life, is to leave them wanting more, leave them raising a tumult that there will no more of the thing they have come to adore and enjoy. If you love an athlete, or even if you don’t love the athlete in particular but adore sporting magnificence, the idea of a great being great, you want them to retire at that time.
And not a moment later.
We forget that sport is entertainment, this thing that is supposed to distract us from life and its cares, letting us immerse ourselves in the beauty of a game for 90 minutes. The reason we hold on to the Messis, the Jordans, the Xavis, the Iniestas is because they elevate the elevated. They make entertainemnt beautiful as they float above the strivings of mere mortals. But what we have to be careful about is that we see our beloveds with clear eyes and an open heart. Loving something means being willing to let it go, willing to understand that even as we adore it, the best thing is what that person, that athlete wants.
Like Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta, Messi loves Barça. Like the other three, Messi will retire in blaugrana, which is as it should be. One part of me believes that if Barça won a treble this season, Messi would retire right then and there, and that, for me, would be fantastic because of how I think great athletes should step away from the game. It isn’t about the last kick or the last tackle. It’s about having magnificence left but leaving on your own terms. It’s wanting the best for Messi, who for the first time spoke openly about the day that so many are looking at with dread. But it shouldn’t be dread.
A better way to look at it is a ration of joy, and how much a great athlete has given us, will give us. Messi has given enough joy, enough glorious moments, enough magic for two normal lifetimes. Even as we debate exactly how good he is, we can’t understand how good he is. Our minds won’t let us do that, but they can let us enjoy him. Messi should leave the game with joy in the tank, and walk away to live a fit, happy life with his kids, family and big, giant-ass dog. That’s beautiful, fitting and perfect. Like Messi.