Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Weight of a Nation: How Argentina's Burden Grew Too Heavy for Lionel Messi

By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

He was the first to walk the requisite 51 yards to the spot for his country. Chile’s Arturo Vidal had just had his shot blocked by Sergio Romero, sending the Argentinian contingent into a frenzy.

Camera phones by the thousands were raised forward by adoring fans ready to witness history. Bulbs flashed, lighting up the stadium as bright as the New York City skyline, and almost as quickly as they vanished, the ball sailed off the pitch and into the stands. Messi tugged at his jersey like a man wanting to rid himself of his skin.

He knew what it meant, and everyone else did too.

Argentina went on to lose the shootout 4-2, dropping the Copa America Centenario final to reigning champion Chile. It was La Albiceleste's third major final loss since 2014 - losing the World Cup final to Germany and the 2015 Copa America again to Chile on penalties - and this defeat appeared to be the last straw for the forward.

His face was grizzly with hair from a beard not shaved for weeks.

His eyes bloodshot, like a man who’s had one too many and dined with ghosts.

Fresh off one of the worst moments of his career, Lionel Messi gingerly strolled into the press room packed with throngs of reporters. It was a scene that had become all too familiar, yet still so foreign.

"For me, the national team is over," Messi said after yet another tournament final defeat. "I've done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion.”

The world’s, and quite possibly, history’s greatest player announced his retirement from international football at the age of 29, in the middle of his prime.

To many it came as a shock, but was it really?

The country’s papers and news telecasts were filled with every emotion imaginable. Some begged for him to stay, even going as far as taking over electronic billboards with the flashing plea of “Lio no te vayas,” or Leo please don’t go.

Others, weren’t so sympathetic. “Coward, quitter, and loser” were just some of the vitriolic terms espoused. However, this is not the first time that an Argentine superstar, considered to be the world's best player, has declared his retirement from the national side. Over 25 years ago, Argentina saw another mega-star walk away following a painful defeat in a major final.

In 1990, after losing the World Cup final to West Germany, Diego Maradona also appeared before the cameras to say he would no longer play for Argentina.

"This was the last time I will play with the Argentine shirt," Maradona said.

The mood following Maradona’s pronouncement was starkly different than that of Messi’s, but why? 

It was 10 years ago that Messi made his World Cup debut. When Argentina were knocked out by Germany in a match that saw then-manager José Pekerman leave a young Messi on the bench. The world shouted afterward that “Messi should have played!”

Nonetheless, he was hailed as the next great hope for a country that had already won two World Cups, a country in which football is central to the people and national identity.

Daniel Radice grew up in Miami, but both his parents hail from Buenos Aires. He recently visited the country on a recruiting trip for his university's soccer team and was taken aback by just how much the game means to the people.

“We were in a field at one of the academies for under-10 and 11 year olds, so I looked to the side and noticed these kids were actually doing strength and conditioning. They were pulling sleds with weights on them, and other exercises you wouldn't see athletes in the United States do until high school. As a coach, I know parents here would be complaining and threatening lawsuits, but in Argentina it's a way of life. Either you choose school or you choose soccer, that's how it works”.

Still, for all of Messi's talent, and that of his squad, Argentina remain without a senior men's title since 1993. Because of this, the country has been divided not only by sporting lines, but political and socio-economic ones as well. Understanding how your country's best player could be so polarizing is not an easy task, but many believe it began at the age of 13 when Messi packed his bags for Spain.

At age 10, Leo was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency. As his father's health insurance covered only two years of growth hormone treatment, which cost at least $1,000 per month, Newell's Old Boys (Messi’s current club at the time) agreed to contribute, but later reneged on their promise.

He was scouted by Buenos Aires club River Plate, whose play maker, Pablo Aimar, he idolized, but they were also unable to pay for his treatment due to the country's economic collapse. 

With family already living in Catalonia, they arranged a meeting with Barcelona and agreed to sign on the condition his treatment would be paid for. He was offered a contract on a paper napkin and the rest is history. Messi would crack the first team at the age of 18, and has not stopped dropping jaws since.

He has 453 goals and an incredible 28 trophies over the span of 12 years. He is the face of a club full of stars, marking a new standard of excellence most would tremble to replicate. In the process, Leo’s identity has shifted. He has become a symbol for Catalan pride and expression, to the point that many casual fans actually believe he is Spanish. In some ways, whether real or perceived, he hasn’t helped his cause.

Since he left Argentina at such a young age,  he was never able prove himself in the Argentine Primera División as an up-and-coming player, missing out on much of the adoration and respect that comes with the experience. His lack of outward passion for the Albiceleste shirt—he does not sing the national anthem and is disinclined to emotional displays—have in the past further fueled the perception that he felt Catalan rather than truly Argentine.

He is constantly compared to his compatriot Diego Maradona, due to their similar playing styles as diminutive, left footed dribblers, who were able to keep possession of the ball tighter than a vault lock.

From there, the comparisons become few and far between.

Maradona rose to fame playing in Argentina. He was an extroverted, controversial and highly political figure. Maradona represented the little man. After all, he used to be one. He rose from out of the shantytown of Villa Fiorito into the superstardom reserved for those in Recoleta. A man whose drug addiction, and subsequent health scares, were broadcasted to the world and forgiven because of his authenticity.

“Oh that's just Diego being Diego. Plus, he won” Many Argentines say.

And win he did.

Maradona put on one of the finest spectacles of individual brilliance in sports during the 1986 World Cup. He finished the tournament as it’s most outstanding player with five goals, with none better than his extraterrestrial run against England. Regarded by many as the finest goal ever scored, Maradona became a legend. His country lifted the golden trophy, etching a place deep in the hearts of Argentines in the process.

For some in his native country, his lack of trophies has become the flashpoint. They claim Messi puts his club before country, saving his best performances for Barcelona. It once got so bad, that he was booed off the pitch following a 2011 defeat in the Copa America.

Other arguments vary on how many years you have lived.

For the young, many weren’t around for the glory years of Maradona and World Cup wins. All they know is Messi and the joy his brilliance so frequently brings.

“I think Messi is more of an Argentine than anyone in this world," Radice said. "I don't think anyone in this world can carry the weight for his country like he has on his shoulders. The truth is, his biggest rival isn't Germany, or even Chile. It is Argentina. The people from Argentina that have nothing better to do than criticize him. When he kicked that PK and missed, it wasn't only Bravo in that goal, it was Argentina. He kicked it that poorly because of all the weight of the people that criticize him. I don't blame him for that missed PK, I blame all the stubborn Argentines that criticize him and call him names”.

Older fans are astonished how a man who cannot deliver a trophy can be so revered.

“Let him stay in Spain,” one journalist wrote after the defeat to Chile. “Us Argentines don’t want him and don’t need him.”

But the truth is, Argentina needs him, he doesn’t need them.

A national team without Messi can expect revenues to fall, from sponsors to friendly fixtures, all tied into Messi’s presence on the pitch. Without him, and under current governance, Argentina could see their entire project collapse.

His disillusionment with the Argentinian FA has sprouted theories that his post-match remarks are designed only to serve the governing body with an ultimatum after years of tension between the two parties. He has called them disorganized, politically unstable and petty. Just 48 hours before Sunday’s match, Messi took aim at the organization in an Instagram post following the cancellation of the team’s flight to New York.

“What a disaster those at the AFA are.”

They also need the other players who have joined Messi in throwing their international futures into doubt, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain, to name a few. 

Whether he or the others, changes their minds and feature for their country at the World Cup in 2018 is anyone's guess, but one thing is clear.

Messi may never be loved in Argentina like Maradona was. His homeland never really got to know him, except for the few times a year he slipped on the sky blue jersey. He has always been seen as something of an outsider, no matter what his passport says. Now that he has turned his back on his country, they might finally realize how much they needed him all along.

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