After over a decade of surprising people with his football skills, Lionel Messi shocked them twice in minutes on Sunday night.
First, like Franco Baresi and Robert Baggio did the last time a major football tournament came to the USA, he sent his penalty-kick into orbit. Then, after enduring what must have been the worst 20-odd minutes of his career, Messi announced he was done with playing for Argentina. Unless he has a dream like Zinedine Zidane and a re-think, this is it for him as an international. The 2008 Olympic gold medal would be all that he has won for Argentina.
“The national team is over for me…It’s not for me after four finals. The decision is made, I believe,” Messi was quoted as saying after losing his fourth final and the third in successive years. “It hurts not to be a champion.”
Messi has played 112 games for Argentina and is the country’s highest goal-getter but he turned 29 two days ago. So, even though it is difficult trying to second-guess football’s most artful dodger --- defenders all over the world and goalkeepers including Chile’s Claudio Bravo, who tweeted “Leo is the best in the world and the best ever. I told him after the game. Still hope he continues with Arg”, will endorse this --- age can be ruled out as a reason.
Uli Hoeness gave up when he was 24 because of a meniscus problem, he had told HT in January 2011 but it is difficult to find players who have dominated the world of football quitting as internationals at 29. Even Johan Cruyff played longer in a Holland shirt and George Best, not quite the apostle of discipline befitting an athlete, represented Northern Ireland when he was 31. In his final game for the Selecao, Garrincha was 33 as was Zico. Socrates and Michel Platini were 32 when they ended their international careers and despite a dodgy knee, Matthias Sammer continued till he was 30.
Quite like Mueller
The one man with whom Messi does have a similarity is Gerd Mueller. ‘Der Bomber’ quit the West German national team when he was one short of 30. Years later, when he came to Kolkata with a Bayern Munich youth team that had Thomas Mueller, HT had asked him why and Mueller had dead-panned: “Because my daughter was calling me uncle, so rarely was she seeing me.” With Messi that too can be ruled out.
What cannot be is that with every defeat in the final, the pressure on Messi kept increasing. In three major final matches including the 2014 World Cup, Argentina have shown that they don’t support Messi enough going forward. That’s never how it is at Barcelona. Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain are great players but with all the attention on Messi, they couldn’t make the right decisions in the front third.
At the Maracana two years ago, after Toni Kroos had made an uncharacteristic error and put Higuain on goal with only Manuel Neuer to beat. The man, who had scored without even looking at the goal against Belgium in that tournament, failed. A defensive error on Sunday in the Copa Centenario final put Higuain in a similar situation but again he was off target. Under pressure, made worse by Diego Maradona’s reported rants, to end a 23-year title drought, Argentina and Messi needed an early goal to cal nerves. Higuain left them even more rattled.
Then, when the teams were down to 10 each and the clock winding down, Aguero decided to go solo completely missing Gabriel Mercado who had made a stellar run down the right. Chile had shown remarkable defensive discipline to close down Argentina but that was the one time they had focused all their attention on Aguero and Messi leaving the galloping defender free.
In the 2014 World Cup, Messi was adjudged Man of the Match in Argentina’s first four games; his goal against Iran breaking an embarrassing deadlock. So good was that effort in Belo Horizonte that Iran coach Carlos Queiroz told reporters it couldn’t have been saved by two goalkeepers. Messi carried Argentina into the quarter-finals and would have carried home the World Cup had a late, late effort not beaten Neuer but gone inches off the far post.
In the Copa Centenario, Messi scored a 19-minute hattrick against Panama coming off the bench and became Argentina’s highest goal-getter with a free-kick that must have even had the USA team silently applauding. But all that will matter for nothing now.
“I wished like nobody else to take the lap of honor [with Argentina] but it was denied, it has to be that way,” he was quoted as saying after the defeat. “It hurts me like nobody else, I leave without being able to win a title.” Earlier this year, Messi had said he would trade all five of his Ballon d’Or awards for glory with the national team.
On Sunday, it would be fair to say that Barcelona’s best players on the pitch were Bravo and Javier Mascherano. Messi looked like he was under pressure and tired as the match went on. It didn’t help that Argentina set up a defensive midfield, their strikers had an off-day as did Angel di Maria.
Messi has missed penalties for Barcelona and Argentina. YouTube has a compilation of such efforts from 2008 to 2014. He has missed trying to go left of the goalie and right and he has missed when aimed for the roof of the net. One of the misses is reminiscent of Granit Xhaka’s botched effort in the Euro 2016 on Saturday. The one against Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final crashed into the horizontal and went out. Going high with a penalty attempt is always dangerous because it could balloon out of control and Sunday was not Messi’s night in more ways than one. What made it worse was that this is the first time Messi’s missed in the penalty shootout.
That he has come this far without ever missing in the tie-breaker is just one facet of his genius. But even geniuses have tipping points and it showed when Messi broke down on the pitch. Lucas Biglia too missed his shot from the spot but while television cameras once caught him weeping alone, everyone tried consoling Messi. For now, it doesn’t seem to have worked.
“I have fun like a child in the street. When the day comes when I'm not enjoying it, I will leave football,” Messi had said in 2011. Playing football for Argentina may have stopped being fun for him on Sunday. So, instead of being told – again — that he reserves his best for his club and not the country, Messi may have decided enough is, indeed, enough.