Prior to Sunday’s Copa América Centenario in MetLife Stadium between Chile and Argentina, former superstar Diego Maradona stated that his country’s side should not bother coming home if they lose. It appears Lionel Messi, arguably the best player to ever grace the field, took this message to heart.
After being reduced to a handful of threatening runs in the game, mindlessly sending errant passes to teammates, missing his country’s first penalty kick, and losing 4-2 in shootouts to continue Argentina’s decades-long title draught, a tearful and distraught Messi told reporters after the game, “For me, the national team is over.”
For many, Messi’s announcement comes as a major shock. Didn’t he just manhandle the U.S. last week? But there is much more drama that’s swirling around Messi’s decision to severe ties with Argentina’s national team—about fifteen years worth of drama. It was, after all, back in 2001 that a 13-year-old Messi was forced to move with his family from Argentina to Barcelona, Spain. At the time, the young phenom was battling growth hormone deficiencies, and his then Argentine club, Newell’s Old Boys, was unwilling to pay the thousand dollar monthly treatment. Word spread from Buenos Aires to Barcelona of a young superstar in the making that needed financial backing for a medical issue. The rest is history.
Since then, Argentians have, by and large, been bitter to the fact that—unlike other soccer heroes such as Diego Maradona and Carlos Tevez—Messi never rose through the ranks of Argentina’s league before departing for Europe. In their eyes, he left the country and never looked back, choosing the charmed life of Catalonia over the grunt work of making a name in the Argentine leagues. It’s a conversation that can be heard every single day in the bars, taxi cabs, brothels, and offices throughout the country.
Over the years, as Messi continued winning Ballon D’or’s and championships for his club side, the curses from his critics back home only grew louder. Over time, Argentines ganged up on Messi, labeling him as an outsider, someone who was nothing like their savior Diego Maradona, winner of the 1986 World Cup. According to natives, today’s Argentine side is filled with international superstars such as Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, making the fact that Messi hasn’t led them to victory all the more despicable. Maradona’s World Cup winning team, on the other hand, was nothing exceptional. It took the heart of a homegrown talent to march them to victory—a true Argentinean heart; a vital organ Messi left behind when he departed for Spain so many years back.
Had Messi not announced his retirement, nearly everyone in Argentina would have been insisting that he be reprimanded for once again leading the team to second place. Messi simply beat them to the punch.
I’m not a betting man, but were I to guess, the reigning world player of the year is bluffing. His decision to retire from international play is calculated, and was done for two reasons. In stating his early retirement two years shy of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Messi is attempting to shine light on the recent scandals swirling around Argentina’s Football Federation with hopes of bringing in a completely new system (AFA’s former president Julio Grondona and several local top division club presidents were recently charged for alleged match fixing). What’s more, the 29-year-old Messi is also forcing the Argentinean fans to do something they’re not used to—putting their frustration over him aside while using that energy to woo the best player in the world out of retirement.
If Messi’s decision to part ways from international soccer is permanent, though, it will be a massive blow for the sport. And his words from this weekend could haunt him for the rest of his career, for the simple fact that Messi is not, and never can be considered the best player of all time if he never wins a title for his country. Indeed, in the words of Messi after the game, “it hurts not to be a champion.”
Written by Nick Mafi for gq.com
Credit : gq.com