Lionel Messi has won all there is to win with Barcelona. If his club career were a beautiful cake, the layers would stack up something like this.
His trophies with Barcelona — 28, since you asked — would make up the spongy base. Fluffy with the eight La Liga wins. On top of it would be the four Champions League titles. With Messi putting his team ahead of himself, the icing, would come last. His individual honours, the five Ballon d’Or titles, the other accolades he has swept over the years and are hard to keep track of --- most goals, most hattricks, most assists etc ---make up the decorative pieces. Delicious.
But each cake needs a cherry on top, the fruity bit that you save for the end and salivate at the thought of eating. Messi is missing his — a title with Argentina.
Last Monday morning, while most of us slept, Messi missed a penalty in the tie-breaker and lost his fourth final with Argentina. Chile won the Copa Centenario. Messi had missed his moment.
This one hurt him. It broke him so much that after the match, he said he would never play for the national team again. This, two days after he turned 29.
It is surprising too, because this final is a pinch compared to the hammer blow he went through at the age of 10, when he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency. While Messi’s family was not poor, his father’s health insurance covered only two years of the treatment— $1000 per month (approximately Rs 67,000 today).
His boyhood club, Newell’s Old Boys, reneged on the promise to support the treatment and his family moved to Catalonia to arrange a trial with Barcelona. After a lot of back and forth, a contract was offered---famously on a paper napkin by then first team director Charly Rexach.
Nearly two decades later, Messi has become the record goalscorer for Argentina and Barcelona but it didn’t assuage the hurt.
“For me, the national team is over,” he said after the match. “I tried hard to be champion with Argentina. Now I am leaving without it,” he said, holding back tears. Most were shed on the pitch.
Trouble had been brewing for some time.
After the semifinal win over hosts USA, Messi called the Argentina Football Association a ‘disaster’ after their flight to the final venue was stranded on the tarmac. To add to it, scribes, fans and everyone else one can think of have criticised him for not recreating his Barcelona form for the national team.
Everyone loves a scapegoat.
Jose Mourinho, for all his flaws, had the whole of England pointing fingers at him for failing as Chelsea manager. Few mentioned the players’ performance, some of whom would later admit that the team had stopped playing for him.
At Euro 2016, Roy Hodgson came under the knife for England’s exit. That they were the youngest team in France and qualified with a 100% record was forgotten. So too was the shambolic performances of ‘stars’ Harry Kane, EPL top scorer Jamie Vardy, or the £50m sprinter who also plays football, Raheem Sterling. Captain Wayne Rooney would have been better off staying at home.
So, it was only fitting that Messi came in Argentina’s cross hairs.
That Messi led the team to the World Cup final in 2014, scored a hattrick and a phenomenal free-kick goal in the Copa Centenario seemed to have been forgotten in a hurry. Also relegated to the background would have been Gonzalo Higuain’s misses in the 2014 final and in the Copa. No one would also mention the disaster that the Albiceleste defence has been; one from where Marcos Rojo got sent off when Argentina were a man up.
“We ask Messi alone to provide what we should ask from the whole team. This was the tournament in which Messi has played best, but with the accumulation of frustrations he has ended up exhausted …In every tournament, the best player (for Argentina) was Messi. It is not fair that all the frustration focuses on him,” Jorge Valdano, World Cup winner with Argentina in 1986, told ESPN.
If there’s anyone who shouldn’t be made a scapegoat, it is Messi. So, let’s enjoy him at Barcelona while we still can.