As Alexis Sanchez cheekily chipped away Chile’s final penalty in the Copa America final on Saturday; Lionel Messi saw yet another golden opportunity to win an international trophy fade away from him. The World Cup final of 2014 will have certainly been the more significant blow, but against a Chile team, albeit hosting the tournament, there seemed to be a more realistic hope that Argentina could take advantage of a side 16 places below them in the FIFA world rankings. This was never the case, Chile fulfilled their destiny on home turf and Messi, the only player to score in the shootout for Argentina, was left heartbroken at his and his country’s inability to be victorious at major tournaments.
International Failings Should Not Undermine Messi’s Legacy
There is something of an inevitability to the response to Argentina’s defeat. Rather than focussing on the entire team and their inadequacies on the night, their defeat somehow has to correlate with Messi. His greatness, to some, cannot be truly palpable until he wins a trophy with Argentina. In a game where Messi was fouled and simply marked out of the match, a game where he converted his penalty under immense pressure and a game where the golden chance fell to his teammate in the 92nd minute, why is there an incessant need to try and let his international failings undermine his achievements?
A month prior to the Copa America final, Messi completed the treble win with Barcelona. That sentence alone should act as justification and advocate for the unique greatness he withholds. For some it does, but for those who witnessed both Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi in their lifetime, it’s hard not to compare and examine the one key difference between their achievements in football.
One argument often placed against Messi is that his teammates at Barcelona have helped him immensely in his success at club level. Internationally he has fantastic teammates too going forward, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Carlos Tevez, and well, the list goes on. These players are surely not far away from being good enough by themselves to challenge at any major tournament. And challenge they do, the one difference is that Lionel Messi fails to reach quite the same performance level for Argentina. To an extent, however, this shows his importance. Messi at his best at club level has won every major trophy, only a slight dip in performance on the international stage has seen him win nothing. If nothing else, it shows the impact Lionel Messi has on a team. He has the ability at 28 now, still to have one last real push at the 2018 World Cup. Although it’s not necessary for him to win this to prove his worth as a footballer, if he were to win it his position as the greatest player ever would gain far more credibility.
His performances internationally as an individual have also received recognition. Rightly or wrongly he won the Golden Ball at last summer’s World Cup in Brazil, and in Chile, Messi apparently rejected the player of the tournament award; symbolising his desire not just to be the best for himself but his team. Defeat in the Copa America final was significant, but should in no way overshadow the club success he has had this season at Barcelona and equally importantly the success he has enjoyed throughout the entirety of his career. While every child dreams of winning a World Cup with their country, they also dream of winning the Champions League, league titles, domestic cups. To win them all in one season seems like a fantasy and nothing more, but for Messi it’s a reality. His legacy as a football player would be wrongly remembered if you chose to focus on his games with Argentina alone. Even if you were to, you would still see a brilliant player, capable of dictating the course of a game far more regularly than a ‘regular’ player ever could.
By this point in Messi’s career, his failings with his country are simply the only failings left to pick on. Cristian Ronaldo, all too often the source of copious comparison to Messi at club level, has had the same fate on the international stage. He has produced brilliant moments of play, and while Portugal may be a considerably poorer team, he has also ‘failed’ to win a trophy with Portugal. The fact is for both that they have been incredibly consistent at club level and are currently the world’s two greatest players – a trophy for their country would not change this.
For Messi in particular the pressure increases because Argentina have had an uncharacteristic 22 year trophy drought. While there is nothing more Messi would want than to end this drought, football is a team game, even with Messi on the pitch. People will groan if he isn’t scoring every game, the Copa America semi final and final saw Messi go without a goal. The semi final saw Messi instead manage a hat trick of assists and the final was admittedly a quiet game by his standards, but as mentioned he did his duty in the penalty shootout. The illustrious trophy still escaped Messi but it also escaped Argentina, it’s worth remembering Messi isn’t the only player with the responsibility for success or indeed failure on his shoulders.
The mundane truth is that the the argument will continue on until the end of his career, if he doesn’t manage to take any of his future trophy chances with his national team. In all honesty, that is something of a sad truth. The Lionel Messi of Barcelona is uniquely talented and successful and much of the legacy of Messi’s game will come from this. It would be disappointing and disproportionate to see the international part of his career dominate conversations over his greatness and his place in the history of football.
Of course, when comparing him with Maradona or Pele it is only logical to mention it, but it’s entirely illogical to spend too much time focusing on it. Even if his Barcelona teammates are exceptional and help him along the way, so what? This only increases the enjoyment in watching one of the best alongside some of the best. It only increases his standard of play to be alongside players of the same wavelength and understanding of his unique football mind. It only increases the the unexplainable genius that Lionel Messi provides every time he steps on a football pitch for Barcelona. This genius is what should be remembered by history.