Heartbreak – Thy Name Is Lionel Messi

Copa America: Lionel Messi retires from internationals after Argentina lose final again to Chile on penalties

Legends have died. Stars have faded. 2016 has been annus horribilis for fans – music, film, sports and arts – from all over the world. It has been a reality-check year, in which many eras have been snapped at once. If it started with David Bowie, it hasn’t yet ended with Anton Yelchin and Muhammad Ali. With six months to go, the mind boggles. Some have been long-in-the-making deaths, while some abrupt and heartbreaking – they will live in memories and hearts, in the knowledge that they can never be brought back.

But how does one deal with the premature death of a career? When Kobe Bryant retired earlier this year, it was more of a relief; he had already outstayed his welcome, much like Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar had once done, finally cutting – and not cutting short – his career. It was meant to be. But, on June 27th 2016, most of the world woke up to (at least those who were sleeping through the Copa America Final) the shattering news of listening to the greatest football player of a generation, and arguably of all time, say, “Done with the national team”.

Lionel Messi isn’t dead. But his international career, which seemed to just be taking wind over the last three years, is now dead. He left many with the feeling of watching a gory, untimely demise – one that can’t even be measured because he will still live on in real time with the Barcelona football team. For some reason, this heat-of-the-moment emotional announcement, coming on the back of Argentina’s third major final loss in three years, doesn’t feel like an Afridi-retirement moment. It feels absolute, and one can only hope that Cristiano Ronaldo texts his great rival to “come back, so that I can fight for Portugal too,” but that may not happen. One can only hope that 29-year-old Messi, who has no business retiring from internationals at his peak, returns for the 2018 FIFA World Cup – his last opportunity to win silverware, to win a title that has so cruelly eluded him for so long. 

Perhaps Messi wouldn’t have considered retirement if Argentina had played the way they did in the 2014 World Cup. They labored some days, exploded the others, and were never favorites (always underdogs) as they prodded through to the final against a superior German team. In the Copa America tournament over the last two weeks, Argentina steamed through, winning 5 out of 5 on the way to their second consecutive final against Chile. There was no way Messi would allow another loss after last year’s. There was no way he was going to miss out after stunning USA with his wonder goal a few days ago.

But there is perhaps no such thing as destiny in football anymore. If there were, Argentina wouldn’t have lost their 7th major final since 1995. They wouldn’t have lost their 6th final since 2004, and their fourth Copa final in the last decade. These numbers are staggering, and have been adding up in Messi’s mind at the rate of knots. To be an eternal bridesmaid is one thing, but to cement your place as one and always come up second best, despite being the best team in the world, is quite something else.

Since 1995, Argentina has lost two Confederation Cup Finals (1995 and 2005), four Copa Finals (2004, 2007, 2015 and 2016) and one World Cup Final (2014). Messi has played in 2007, 2014, 2015, 2016 – tasting defeat on four heartbreaking occasions, twice through penalties. To make matters worse, Messi missed his first-ever shootout penalty against Chile, slamming it over the crossbar for their first kick, leading his team to a 2-4 blowout. 

Messi’s problems with the Argentine Football Association (AFA) were already well documented. Despite that, he became his country’s top goal scorer in this tournament with that heavenly free kick against USA – and will probably end on 55 goals.

It’s not easy for youngsters – however inhuman they may look on a football pitch – to deal with loss and heartbreak early in their life. It never becomes a habit; each time feels like another piece of heart being chipped off. But their character and greatness lies in the manner they deal with it, standing back up, coming back for more, before perhaps letting age and evolution get the better of them. Roger Federer has won just one Grand Slam since he was 28. He is now almost 35, and has reached four more finals after that, three in the last two years. After losing them all to Novak Djokovic, you’d think he’s had enough. But he wants one more; you can sense it. He wants to defy nature to win another Wimbledon title, and he wants to go out on a high like Pete Sampras once did. Messi, meanwhile, has age and form on his side.

At 29, it isn’t the age he should succumb to heartbreak. It doesn’t feel right, and it doesn’t feel like something that befits the GOAT tag. Perhaps he wants to be known as the man that gave up internationals, knowing that when he is remembered, there will always be an outside hope of him probably having won a title if he had stayed on. He doesn’t want to be known as the man who simply failed to win Argentina a trophy throughout his storied career. Cutting it short makes it a “debatable” conversation, an ambiguous one that will leave a question mark – which he prefers to laboring on till 35 and not winning one.

A year ago, to this day, Kumara Sangakkara retired from cricket in the middle of Sri Lanka’s Test series against India. He was at his peak, and at least had a T20 Cricket World Cup to show for all his work – Sri Lanka had lost the 2007 ODI WC Final, the 2011 ODI WC Final, the 2009 and 2012 T20 World Cup finals. But he played on till he personally dragged them through against India in the 2014 T20 Final. Messi almost managed that, but tanked against familiar rivals on the big stage. Surely, he would get another chance. But maybe he doesn’t want one. Because maybe, he doesn’t want to lose again.

 

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