Despite losses in the last two summers in major tournament Finals for Argentina and Lionel Messi, he somehow managed to keep his expression in check, as well as his disappointment. But by the third time last night at MetLife Stadium, the weight of the world, the internal turmoil at the Argentinian FA and the pressure seemed to collapse on his shoulders, and finally he could bear the weight no more. Whether he’s retired for good is a question for a later date, even though many in the world will have their doubts. But do these failures permanently mark Messi in terms of his place on the list of the world’s best players? Despite what some voices in Argentina will tell you, they don’t.
His club legacy is already secure, so no matter what he does between now and when he retires for good he will have left La Liga, Barcelona and world soccer forever changed and marked by his legacy. Whenever he stands over a free kick, the world moves to the edge of their seats in expectation, and when he makes those runs towards the penalty area, there is a sense of inevitability about what’s coming next. The same is true when he trades in the Barca colors for those of Argentina. In World Cup 2014, when Argentina needed saving from themselves, Messi came to the rescue with his trademark brilliance. Even in this tournament, his games against Panama, Venezuela and the US were masterclass performances that very few in the history of the game, let alone many if all of his contemporaries could match.
Sitting in Levi’s Stadium during the first meeting between Argentina and Chile in this tournament, the crowd’s expectation for Messi was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Di Maria, Higuain, Alexis, Vidal and others were all on show, and that marquee of names should have been enough for any soccer fan at that game to leave satisfied. But every five or so minutes, a loud chant for Messi would roar through the stadium, even though the same crowd chanting for him knew there wasn’t a chance he’d play because of his injury. There are so many great players in world soccer right now, but so few of them would elicit a reaction like that. This is what Messi brings with him wherever he goes, not to mention the pressure that follows right behind.
Ever since he emerged onto the stage more than a decade ago, the weight of the world has been borne onto his shoulders, particularly with Argentina. There is not much left for Messi to accomplish with Barcelona except maybe winning another treble, sextuple and increasing the distance between himself and those now trailing far behind him in the Barcelona and La Liga record books. He’s also Argentina’s all-time leading scorer, now ahead of Gabriel Batistuta. All that remains is the elusive international crown which has been beyond him and Argentina since 1993, and on nights like the one under the muggy skies of the swamps of New Jersey, maybe it isn’t meant to be for Messi and his country.
His frustration with the Argentinian FA is well known and well documented. The stories emanating from Buenos Aires are insane and go well beyond football and into the realms of insanity. Well beyond his frustration with results on the pitch come with what he’s had to deal with behind the scenes, which has certainly added to the anger, frustration and torment. Then comes the pressure from some corners in the Argentine media, who don’t see him as anywhere near the quality of the heroes that came before him. Though his performances in international finals have left something to be desired, so to have the performances of his teammates. Gonzalo Higuain despite his scoring prowess with Napoli has not been up to snuff. If just one of those chances goes in, the narrative is dramatically different. But now, the ever-lasting image of Messi in an Argentina shirt might be his skied penalty and then his expression sitting on the bench alone and frustrated after Chile had won again.
Messi’s shock retirement announcement isn’t so much of a shock when the weight of the world has been on those shoulders for so long. Add in the turmoil in Buenos Aires, plus the pressure from the media, and this latest failure, certainly the most painful of the lot, the world should have sympathy for a man that has done everything but clear that last hurdle with Argentina, and has done everything with a flourish on club level. Would an international trophy have been the cherry on top? Yes, but it should not forever define Messi if he’s truly done with international soccer. His legacy will continue to grow beyond those bounds without the pressure of a country on his back if that’s the case.
The dust has barely settled on another international tournament, and has barely began to be kicked up with the Argentinian FA. World Cup 2018 is more than two years away, and should Argentina not be banned from World Cup Qualifying, they’re still heavy favorites to get to Russia. Messi will be 30 going on 31 then, and his team will still be regarded as massive favorites to hoist the trophy in Moscow. Quite a bit can and will happen between then and now.
What won’t change is Messi’s legacy, no matter what anyone thinks of his Argentinian career.
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