With tranquility, Lionel Messi spoke in a press conference the day before the Copa America final. A beard on his face, calm in his voice, he was a far cry from the young boy who once made his debut with Argentina and got unfairly sent off 40 seconds later. A far cry from the boy who cried his eyes out when he got injured as an 19-year-old prodigy in a Barcelona shirt. He had matured. If it hadn’t been obvious before, it was then.
Earlier, he had taken to Instagram to voice his disappointment at the Argentine football federation, whose mishaps had forced the team to sit and wait around in an airplane just days before their biggest match of the summer. Clearly the grown up, matured Messi carries a weight in the dressing room. Clearly he now has a silent charisma and strength about him that inspires confidence and respect, and he knows it.
But in his prowess and greatness, with people all around the world admiring him, he is, quite clearly, also very alone. With Argentina, he always has been. That has never been more evident than after the lost Copa America final in New Jersey.
After Argentina lost the match on penalties, Messi cried his eyes out on the pitch. It’s a Messi the world hadn’t seen after that injury several years ago with Barcelona. The man who sometimes appears to show no emotion, was devastated, sitting on the ground, tears in his eyes. His teammates tried to console him and wrap their arms around him, but he was beyond consolable. No one could really understand. He must have been angry with himself for missing a penalty in the shootout, he must have been upset that it was the third consecutive loss in a final, but most importantly, he must have felt tired and alone.
The comments he made after the match spoke of the same exhaustion and solitude. “I’ve tried hard, I wanted this more than anything, but it wasn’t to be. Four finals… It (national team) is not for me. This is how I feel right now.”
The comments reveal an awful lot about the man that we ultimately know so little about. They reveal an awful lot about what winning with Argentina would have meant for him, and how much it hurts to not have been able to do it. Messi never talks about how he feels. “We this, we that”, is what usually comes out of his mouth. He never makes it about himself, even when the rest of the world does.
This was one of the few times he was honest about how hurt he is. He doesn’t usually show such things. That’s why, once the decisive penalty went in for Chile, we saw a Messi that is the furthest possible from the young, innocent Messi, who once took the world by storm. “I’ll retire when I stop enjoying football”, he said in 2011. But with Argentina, one can probably count with one hand the times he truly enjoyed it. International duty for him was about chasing a myth, trying to win over the people whose acceptance he craved. It wasn’t that he suddenly stopped enjoying international football after Sunday’s loss. Rather, he stopped believing that international football could ever bring him that enjoyment, despite all his efforts over the years.
The Argentina shirt has always been a burden for him, more than anything. He will never say that out loud, he’ll go on about honor and pride of playing for his country if you ask him about it. But what he said on Sunday left no doubts.
“I think this is best for everyone. This is what a lot of people have wanted”, he said, referring to his retirement. If ever we, the world of football, have wondered whether Messi is an impenetrable fortress immune to criticism and abuse, Sunday gave us the answer. No, he isn’t.
The World Cup of 2010 was a major disappointment. Messi didn’t manage to score in the tournament and faced unthinkable criticism from his own countrymen after Argentina was trashed by Germany. The Copa America of 2011 was even worse. Played in Argentina, it was supposed to be the perfect chance for Messi to win a place in his country’s heart. Instead, Messi was whistled at by his fellow Argentinians as the hosts were eliminated by Uruguay. “Pecho frío”, they said. “He doesn’t even sing the anthem”.
Messi got up. He played some of his best football with Barcelona in the following years. Coming into the 2014 World Cup, he had suffered from injuries and was visibly unfit. But he took over the tournament, dragging Argentina through the group stage and setting up the goals that helped the team to the final. He had turned 27 during the tournament, he was the age Diego Maradona was when he won “his” World Cup, and everything was perfectly set up. The only problem was that Germany was clearly the superior team, and Argentina could not take their chances to win the game. Criticism arose again. “Maradona brought us the World Cup”, his countrymen said. “You’ll never be as great as him”.
But again, he got up. He played arguably the greatest football of his career during the following year. In the Copa America 2015 he again led his team to the final. This time, only to lose on penalties. He was the only Argentine to score from the spot that day. He got up one more time, he arrived injured at the Copa America of 2016, but as soon as he recovered, he amazed the world. A free kick here and a free kick there, an assist here and a goal scoring record there, he seemed unstoppable. “We all hope that this will be our year”, he said after the victorious semi-final. “Hope”. With a lucky beard and a smile on his face, he had hope.
“It wasn’t to be” was the phrase after the final. All hope, all joy wiped from his face, replaced by tears.
This time it appears that he won’t get up anymore. The World Cup of 2018 must seem a million miles away, and perhaps he will still change his mind before that. Perhaps he spoke in the heat of the moment, too soon after a defeat.
Perhaps it was a decision that had been brewing for a long time. Teammates Aguero and Mascherano echoing Messi’s thoughts could suggest so. In any case, the decision to leave international football was, in essence, sad in both how it happened and why it happened.
It’s been over ten years since Messi made his debut with Argentina. He represented his country 113 times. Over the course of those ten years and 113 games, Messi’s innocence and childlike hope of winning trophies has slowly turned into a certain cynicism, acceptance of the fact that Argentina will never be what he wants it to be for him, just like he will never be what so many Argentinians want him to be. His international career, in the eyes of too many, is marked by who he wasn’t, rather than by who he was and is. Considering the magnitude of his talent, this is criminal, but it’s the way that it is. Football is not fair, and nor are fans, and sometimes they’re most unfair to those who least deserve it.
It’s a silent, yet sad parting of ways. No slamming doors, no blaming anyone. Just a mature grown up telling the other party that he is no longer willing to bend over backwards for the shirt that weighs so much on his shoulders, yet gives him so little in return.
Critics will say that he quit and should have kept going. But at this point, how much will Messi care? When he spoke to the press after the final, there was both a sadness and a tranquility in his voice. He was upset and hurt, but he seemed at peace with that hurt. He’s at peace with the fact that he is flawed, his career is flawed, and his relationship with Argentina is and forever might be flawed. Perhaps not through any fault of his own, but still. In a way, it’s the ultimate testament to his maturity. Argentina, to him, is like the parent that never accepted what he wanted to do in his life. That acceptance may never arrive, but he’s done waiting around. He still loves his parent, because it’s unconditional, he might visit occasionally, but perhaps he’s better off doing what he loves somewhere else, away from the judging eye that only causes him heartache.