Spare a thought for Chile.
Spare a thought for Chile. They got nothing but scant recognition for their triumph in the Copa America Centenario last week because all the attention was monopolised by the captain of the losing team, Argentina: Lionel Messi. After not winning a title in 98 years of the tournament’s history, Chile had just nailed their second in two years only to see Messi’s international retirement eclipse the victory. That’s football for you.
It wasn’t the first time that an individual towered above his team, his opponents and the game itself. And, it wouldn’t be the last. Even in a democratic sport like football, all aren’t equal. As in life, some are more equal than others. And, Messi is no mere mortal. For many, he is the greatest footballer that has ever laced up his boots. For his fans, he is almost divine.
Messi, the most celebrated football player of this era, ended his international career with a wretched shot over the bar in the penalty shoot-out against Chile. The forward hadn’t started it auspiciously either, as he was sent off after a little more than 40 seconds on the pitch against Hungary in his debut 11 years ago. If Messi doesn’t go back on his retirement decision, he would end up with the most underwhelming entry and exit among the class of players who set lofty standards.
It was not a surprise that Messi decided to call time on his time with Argentina because losing a third final in as many years broke the proverbial camel’s back. In all, the forward has lost four finals since 2007. In other words, he has won nothing with the senior national team. These are all damning statistics for a player with preternatural abilities. For a player who is faintly acquainted with failure at club level, international glory proved elusive.
As 2016 Copa America, conducted in the USA to commemorate the tournament’s centenary, progressed, one thought that it was tailor-made for Messi to end his international drought. Brazil and Uruguay, the two strongest teams, bowed out in the group stages. Chile, who had won the previous edition on home soil, appeared a pale shadow of themselves.
If at all any team looked like champions, it was Argentina. Alas, everything turned sour for Argentina and Messi in the shoot-out, which is a modern variant of the Russian roulette. Messi had the onus of taking Argentina’s first penalty in the shoot-out after Arturo Vidal had missed Chile’s first. Pressure got to the Argentine captain as he blasted his shot over the bar. His failure wasn’t fatal at the outset because the teams were only all-square at that point. Psychologically, however, Chile had seized the initiative. It was only a matter of time before Argentina threw in the towel.
Watching Messi, who cut a melancholic figure with his scraggly beard, agonise after the loss was excruciating. For once Messi didn’t mean joy and happiness on the football field. Messi came out of the dressing room to announce to the waiting horde of reporters that his time with Argentina was over. It wasn’t a bombshell as it was later made out to be. Messi’s decision was probably influenced by the thought that he was preordained not to win anything with his country. At 29, he had turned fatalistic.
Losing three finals in succession without scoring a goal was too much even for a player of Messi’s standing. His critics, of whom there aren’t too many, would point out that he should have done better in those three finals. They are right.
Messi was well below his resplendent best in the finals of the 2014 World Cup, 2015 Copa and 2016 Copa. He seemed to buckle under the weight of burgeoning expectations at home. The whole of Argentina looked up to him for deliverance. But the messiah failed to end the country’s trophy drought in a major tournament since 1993.
Messi couldn’t conjure up any magic, which he does with regularity for Barcelona, in six hours of uninspiring football in open play. He should be more upset about not being able to score in normal and extra time against Chile than his penalty miss in the shoot-out on Sunday. Anyone can miss a penalty but only a player of his class can alter the course of a match in open play.
It’s an irony that Argentina including its president is beseeching Messi not to turn his back on national duty because the player appears to feel that he’s not appreciated enough at home. For all his breathtaking skills and awe-inspiring exploits with Barcelona, Argentina hasn’t warmed up to Messi in the way it embraced Diego Maradona. The stellar role Maradona played in winning the 1986 World Cup almost single-handedly endeared him to fans of all ages.
At the height of his powers, Maradona made all Argentine fans feel that he was playing them. He was a one-man PR agency for the South American country, which was not known for its sporting pedigree. After Che Guevara, no Argentine had garnered as much global attention as Maradona.
Maradona embodied Argentina in the way Messi couldn’t. Messi had a chance to represent Spain as he moved to Barcelona when he was 13 but he spurned the offer to attest his allegiance to Argentina.
In outlook, Messi is more European than South American. Maybe that’s where he is missing the mental and emotional strength to carry the national team on his shoulders. As Maradona said, Messi doesn’t have the leadership qualities to inspire his teammates.
A great player gives his best most of the time but a great leader inspires his team to give its best at the right time.