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.